Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen & Anna Sivula

Abstract: The paper deals with the question of how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the paper illuminates the amateur and professional historicising of computer games. The general theoretical contribution of the paper is in the explanation of cultural heritage processes where contemporary cultural phenomena are historicised and in the illustration of the role of production of monuments in the historicising.

 

Introduction

Laurajane Smith argues that heritage is not only something material, which merely relates with the past. Rather, it is a process of engagement of contemporaries. According to Smith, heritage is an act of communication, and an act of creating meaning in, and for, the present. At the same time, it signifies cultural identity work, a cultural and social process, which engages with acts of remembering, hence creating ways of understanding the present (Smith 1–2.). The process of defining cultural heritage occurs within game cultures as well. Academically, and in hobbyist communities, and partially within the game industry, cultural heritage debate has roused demands such as that certain digital games have to be saved and preserved ”before it is too late” (e.g. Lowood et al.). In the sense of Laurajane Smith’s ideas, the reason for the preservation is the shared conceptualization that digital games are meaningful and they should be able to pass on to new generations. Digital games are not – yet – in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, but there are already game canons, lists of significant, important, and revolutionary games; collected and conducted by hobbyist communities and semi-officially nominated committees.[1] Even though those debates about the heritage value of game cultures circle around material issues and, in many cases, specific items – digital and non-digital – the debates are part of the process of engagement and communicative identity work described by Smith.

Recognized heritage ought to be preserved, and scholars, as well as game hobbyists, have examined various possibilities for digital game preservation. They have approached that from the perspectives on creation of (museum) collections and archives, documenting and emulation and migration of game software code and so forth, which all can be perceived as ‘heritage work’ or ‘heritage management’ (Smith 2006) for ensuring that valuable items could be transferred for new generations. (See e.g. Swalwell; Heinonen & Reunanen; Guttenbrunner et al.; Barwick et al.. For a critical overview, see Newman.)[2] The discussion of digital game preservation is significant, but it, primarily, lacks serious contemplation regarding one of the key questions that is the focus of this paper: how the game cultural elements are recognized and selected as being worthy of preservation, of becoming elevated to the status of cultural heritage?  Obviously, one simple answer to the question is that particular games and devices have received wide recognition and impact as novelties in their contemporary contexts and therefore their value is somehow self-evident. We argue that there are other reasons to consider: more local and marginal means and, especially, historicized value of something to be the first of its kind. These canonical items of cultural heritage, we call here monuments.

Our primary theoretical concepts in this paper are the above mentioned (cultural) heritage process and monument. The cultural heritage process is observed in light of a case of early Finnish commercial computer games. Instead of being particularly interested in what digital game actually was the earliest production in Finland, we will merely deal with the question of public discourse of firstness and its connections with the cultural heritage process. The emergence of such discourse, representing the past of Finnish game cultures in a precise manner, we argue, is a sign of a particular phase of a cultural heritage process where specific actors have a motivation to discover origins of national game cultures and industry. Thus, we ask here, who is historicizing Finnish commercial computer games? When did the question of the first game emerge? How is the debate related to the process in which digital games become cultural heritage?  The case provides answers to the primary research question: how are certain items selected and transformed to the cultural heritage of digital game culture, particularly in the role of a monument? This article provides a model for comparison on other case examples in different contexts.

The article consists of the following sections: we will begin with an introduction to our essential theoretical concepts based on contemporary academic discussion on cultural heritage. Then, we will illustrate our case and describe public debate about the first, Finnish commercial computer game. In conclusion, we will return to theoretical conceptualizations of historicizing “firsts.”

Cultural heritage, community and monuments

Raiford Guins (108–109) has described the remnants of arcade game machines, such as Pac-Man or Pole Position cabinets, as unintentional monuments. Leaning on Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s definition (1903), Guins states that even though the machines were monumental in their own age, they were not intended “for deliberate commemoration.” According to Guins, their monument status is new — or what we would contend: newly historicized.

Monuments are the vital elements in the production of cultural heritage.[3] The topical question is how and when an average digital game object is transformed from an ordinary artefact or a commodity to a realm of memory (Nora 626), or, as we prefer, a monument of digital culture.

A monument is a historical artefact that has a specific symbolic value to a certain cultural heritage community, i.e. a group of people who share an understanding of their common history.[4] In the cultural history of games, for instance, the famous and somehow special game devices and games, such as the first coin-op games or home consoles, now presented in museums and private collections, can become monuments to game culture. Such monuments are able to commodified as new products such as retrogames.[5]

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

A monument is an active element in a dynamic network of cultural heritage processes. A monument derives its cultural value and meaning from historical interpretations. A monument, a particular gaming artefact for example, is a link between the different elements of the production of social memories. Things, places, events, and stories are comprised in a monument. (Aronsson 197.)

The monument is historical by nature. The making of a monument requires a historical antecedent. When elements of cultural heritage are selected and thus, cultural heritage produced, the argumentation is grounded on histories. History, in this context, is a representation of the past, based on research and traceable source materials. The value of particular game devices, games and game related practices, is built on the historical representations of them, but the research conducted by professional, trained historians is not the sole source of these representations. Therefore, it is important to ask; who writes the history? The one, who conveys the history and conducts the process of cultural heritage?

As mentioned above, cultural heritage as a concept does not only refer to material or immaterial objects, but to a dynamic process (Smith 44–45; Bortolotto 21–22).  In this circular process, cultural heritage is produced, used, and reproduced. Instead of only consisting of objects, cultural heritage is merely an experience of historical continuum and social participation (Smith 45 and 49–50). Cultural heritage is also an instrument of various sorts of group-identity work, which has several transnational, national and local levels. (Sivula 2015; Sivula & Siro 2015.)

There are several groups, as well as individuals, who are developing their historical identity with digital games: game developers, players, journalists, and collectors, to name a few. On the other hand, there is not any indigenous group of digital culture, who possesses an exclusive right to the cultural heritage of digital games. A heritage community experiences the possession of cultural heritage and thus uses it in identity work and maintains its symbolic value. (Sivula 2010, 29.) According to Pierre Nora, the realms of memory are remnants or symbols of the past, “where [cultural] memory crystallizes and secretes itself” (Nora 1989, 7).

Cultural heritage is an instrument of identity work with the symbols and traces of the past, experience of participation, and shared historical experience. (Sivula 2015.) The identity work is performed by a cultural heritage community, as seen below.

 

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

The researching and interpretation of the past keeps the cultural heritage process active. Further, the practice of researching, interpreting and representing the past can be observed as the three phases of historiographical operation. According to Paul Ricoeur, the three phases are: 1) documentation, 2) explaining and understanding the past and 3) the historical representation of the past. (Ricoeur 169–170, 182–184 and 234–235; Sivula 2006, 44–45). The cultural heritage process begins with an attempt at historicizing the past, selected by a heritage community. A historian, either amateur or a professional, steps through all the three phases of historical operation, until the past is documented, explained and understood, and further represented in the form of a history.

Monuments – tangible or intangible – are the traces of the past, used in the identity work of a cultural heritage community both as documentary, historical evidence, and meaningful, historical symbols. The symbolic and/or evidential value of a monument, as a realm of social memory, is based on history. Written or oral histories are acting as, and used as frame stories, establishing the meaning of cultural heritage. However, when digital game culture is concerned, one is able to find these histories, for example, in game magazines and online forums consisting of feature articles on (developments of) particular games, genre, developers, and devices; or personal memoirs or one’s personal gaming histories. A tangible or intangible monument, in its turn, serves as evidence and thus solidifies the plot and content of heritage communities’ historical self-comprehension. (Sivula 2015, 64–67.)

Histories are, during the cultural heritage process, used in order to highlight some important moments and attach some remnants of the past i.e., monuments, to these highlighted moments of shared history. (Sivula 2015, 66.) Monuments are usually attached to the beginning of the historical story, or to the turning points of the historiographically described process. Monuments are, therefore, often attached to historically important turning points, or to the instance in which a progressive series of events starts to unfold. In Finland, for instance, the Commodore 64, the most popular home computer of the 1980s, is that sort of monument, which signifies the turn towards home computer gaming and the micro computing age and, which, functions as a media technological symbol for a certain generation of people. In Japan, the Nintendo Famicom console has the similar role, and we are able to find a plethora of examples from other countries.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

In the monumentalisation process, the meaning of the object obviously transmutes from its original significance. J. C. Herz (61–62), for instance, richly describes the change in the videogaming context in her famous popular book on videogame history, Joystick Nation. In her work she portrays an early coin-op videogame exhibition at the American Museum of the Moving Images, where game cabinets’ new displacement has illuminated and underlined their novel contextualization. The machines were not situated as close to each other as they would have been in arcades, where their placement catalysed an aesthetic elevation in the author’s mind: “They are privileged with space, like statues or really expensive clothing, and thus become Design Objects. And this is when you realize, for the first time, that these cabinets, apart from containing your favourite videogames, are really just goddam beautiful.”

There is plethora of games that are not actively played anymore. Some of them have already been forgotten, but some of them, nonetheless, have the potential to become monuments of digital culture. The cultural heritage potential of a game appears, most often, to be rested on the argument of being “the first” or being a “historical turning point.”

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi's review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi’s review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

We have noticed that the frame stories of the cultural heritage process of computer games are not global (though in many cases globalized), but are rather national histories. In Finland, there are already some popular histories available, and there is a vivid, ongoing discussion on the beginnings and turning points of digital gaming in Finland. The symbolic monuments are not yet largely selected, but they are under historical construction (see e. g. figures 1, 3, 4). The usability of these selected items of cultural heritage depends on their historical value. Selected items can be used, for example, as unique celebrated artefacts in museums, and/or as commodified, copied, varied, and reproduced elements in retro- and heritage industrial contexts. On the other hand, monuments are able to be based on shared experiences: they are not curiosities, they are unique items or have particular cult status as rarities but merely popular and international items such as above mentioned Commodore 64 computer or specific popular game products. However, in this case, we focus on a rarity as a potential monument. The next section of the paper will deal with the case of the first commercial computer game in Finland.

Debate on the first Finnish commercial computer game

There are never ending debates in different fields regarding what was the first of a particular type of invention, technology, media form, or something else. This debate has already been recognized earlier, for example, by computer historians. The history of computer games and videogames is not an exception. The debate on what is the first video game or computer game has mainly been international – or essentially, US oriented. One is able to find variations of this discussion from almost every videogame history book or textbook of game studies, which repeat stories and report new findings related to American Tennis for Two, Spacewar!, Pong and so on.  When the national and local digital game historical representations of the past have begun to emerge, the similar debate has achieved domestic dimensions and bloomed as national versions. This has happened in Finland as well, mainly within computer and game hobbyist communities and in online discussion forums and publications.

Computer scientist and historian John A. N. Lee (57) provides several reasons for the “common desire to be associated with firsts” within the history of computing. On the one hand, it is certainly desirable to become recognized in history as an inventor or a founder or discoverer of some sort of historical origins of the important phenomenon. On the other hand, other reasons can be economic: “Unique firsts do have a place in the identification of the owners of intellectual property rights with respect claims on patents, copyrights, and such.” Lee notes critically that in many cases, it is difficult to define something as being the first and continues further: “Everyone likes firsts but the attraction is for fame and fortune rather than downstream usefulness—firsts are better left to the Guinness Book of Records than being the subject of endless, meaningless arguments in scholarly journals.” (See also Haigh)

Overall, the discussion about the first digital game in Finland has primarily dealt with the issue of the first Finnish commercial computer game publication and not the very first Finnish (digital) game ever produced, perhaps because the publication is less difficult to master: before commercial publications there was a quite uncertain phase of non-commercial amateur game projects, a period of producing and playing of games with mainframe and mini computers (Saarikoski 264). Some studies dealing with earlier developments, at least partially, have appeared (see e.g. Saarikoski; Paju; Saarikoski & Suominen), as well as studies pondering questions of the earliest computers and microcomputers in Finland (e.g. Suominen 2003; Saarikoski 2004; Paju).

Even though the question of the earliest Finnish commercial computer game release seems rather straightforward from the first sight, it is much more complicated than that. Basically, we can challenge all of the elements of the question: what does “Finnish” mean? And what do we signify with “a computer” game’ or with a “commercial?”

Let’s now trace the tracks and marks regarding the online debate of the first commercial computer game in Finland using Google search as a helper. It appears that there are only a few hits with the keywords “first Finnish computer game” or “first Finnish video game” (during the process of writing first manuscript of the paper in Spring 2014). However, for example, the Dome.fi-site, which has focused on forms of popular culture, such as television, cinema and games; consists of various articles and discussions about the issue. Jukka O. Kauppinen, a pioneering game journalist and one of the key persons researching the historicisation of digital gaming in Finland (Suominen 2011; Suominen et al. 2015), published, along with with Miikka Lehtonen and Teemu Viemerö, an article about the early years of the Finnish game industry and the “first Finnish games” on the 1st of December 2013. The authors opened their article with a summary introduction and referred to an antecedent text handling the 30-year anniversary exhibition about the Finnish game industry. The exhibition had been had been organized for the DigiExpo2013 fair by the association of Finnish game importers, FIGMA. Game distributer firms trace their history from the establishment of Petri Lehmuskoski’s company, Toptronics, in 1983. In the article, Kauppinen and his colleagues stated that not only importing, but also the production of the first commercial games began in Finland 30 years before prior (Viemerö et al. 1.12.2013.).

The above-mentioned writers noted that the company Amersoft was probably the first game publisher in Finland. They looked through the company’s different phases by introducing its, as well as some other publishers’ early releases. They discussed the following games: Joe the Whizz Kid (1985), RahaRuhtinas (1984, Amersoft), Sanxion (1986), Uuno Turhapuro muuttaa maalle (1986, Amersoft), Painterboy (1986), Delta (1987), Quedex (1987), Octapolis (1987), and Netherworld (1988). About Amersoft, they wrote:

The book publisher Amersoft was probably the first Finnish game publisher whose contribution to domestic game field was very significant. The best knowledge available suggests that that the first domestic commercially published game was RahaRuhtinas [“Money Prince”], which came out in 1984 which was a pseudo-3D graphic implemented adventure. Little information remains about the game’s aims or storyline for future generations, however, the Finnish adventure game was, according to some recollections, quite functional and entertaining (Viemerö et al. 1.11.2013).

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Quite obvious sources in tracing popular knowledge of game cultural histories are main social media platforms, particularly Wikipedia and also game historical vlogs on YouTube. In the winter 2013–2014, Finnish Wikipedia’s chronological list of Finnish games stated that RahaRuhtinas was the first game (Wikipedia: Suomen videopelialan historia 30.11.2013).  Wikipedia referred to another of Jukka O. Kauppinen’s articles, published on June 27, 2011. The article was titled “Is this the first Finnish game ever” There, Kauppinen noted that “who knows how long the search for the first Finnish commercial computer game has lasted, and there has not been a definitive answer to the question so far. Although there are several good candidates.” Kauppinen first mentioned the Yleisurheilu (Track and field sports) game for Commodore 64, released in 1985 by Amersoft and stated that RahaRuhtinas had an even earlier release date. He continued: “According to some claims, there are some older Vic-20 games as well, but it seems that one cannot find quite now very exact evidence about them” (Kauppinen 27.6.2011.) In his article, Kauppinen also referred to a discussion that occurred in April 2011, in MuroBBS online discussion forum. However, Raharuhtinas was not actually mentioned there, only more recent commercial games and older non-commercial games (MuroBBS 14.4.2011). Obviously, it is worthwhile to follow article links and references and trace their mutual connections and cross-references in an ongoing loop bouncing between Wikipedia entries, online articles, and message boards.

Information dealing with Amersoft and Raharuhtinas became more specified in 2013 and in spring 2014. In autumn 2013, game historians, hobbyists and collectors Markku Reunanen, Mikko Heinonen and Manu Pärssinen, published an article about the history of Finnish games in Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies (Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2013). Their article was based on their database of Finnish games published at the Videogames.fi site. They claimed: “So far the oldest finding is an adventure game Raharuhtinas, programmed by Simo Ojaniemi and published by Amersoft in the year 1984.” On the 14th of December 2013, however, Videogames.fi was updated and a new game appeared. The site alleged that the first game, also programmed by Simo Ojaniemi, was called Mehulinja (Juice line), not Raharuhtinas: “[Mehulinja] requires a VIC-1211 Super Expander extension. According to our current information, Mehulinja is the first commercially published computer game. The game won I came-made-won programming contest in 1984.” The example shows how researchers, at least, were careful when claiming something as being the first.

Videogames.fi refers to another website called Sinivalkoinen pelikirja (http://sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com/) (Blue-white game book [colours referring to the Finnish national flag]), which has published a review of the Mehulinja game on 22 March, 2013. The Sinivalkoinen pelikirja site was connected to an ongoing book project, a chronicle about Finnish game history. The book was published in spring 2014. On the one hand, the book, written by journalist Juho Kuorikoski and based on the website, claimed that RahaRuhtinas is “as far as we know, the first commercial Finnish game for Commodore 64.” Kuorikoski mentioned three “small games” programmed by Simo Ojaniemi for VIC-20 published in the same year: Mehulinja, Herkkusuu (Sweet Tooth) and Myyräjahti (Vole Hunt) (Kuorikoski 12). On the other hand, he declares that Raharuhtinas was the first Finnish game released (20) and that Yleisurheilu was only “one candidate for being the first Finnish game ever.” (25). That variation proves the uncertainty of the first.[6]

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com website.

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com website.

Similar updating of the information has happened on a YouTube channel by alias AlarikRetro. He published a video review – another type of history – of Raharuhtinas on December 1th, 2013 and remarked that the game was the first Finnish release. Only a few days later, the 14th of December, he included an edit, in which he refers to the Videogames.fi site and states that actually Mehulinja was the first (AlarikRetro 8.12.2013 and AlarikRetro 27.12.2013) There are similar debates on other hobbyist sites.

In sum, the question of the first game has not been verified, although though it has received some emerging interest. Then, in July 2014, a novel turn took place, when Manu Pärssinen and Markku Reunanen discovered a new, an older candidate, which might have been the first commercial computer game in Finland. That was called Chesmac, a game programmed by Raimo Suonio in 1979 for the Telmac 1800 home computer. According to Suonio, the game, released by computer retailer Topdata, sold 104 copies. Pärssinen and Reunanen published several documents related to game, such as scanned photos of the game’s manual and an interview with the programmer (Pärssinen & Reunanen 28.7.2014). The news of this new first was circulated in online magazines as well as in newspapers (Kauppinen 28.7.2014; Berschewsky 28.7.2014). In the end, the leading Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published an interview with the programmer Raimo Suonio (Jokinen 10.8.2014). Thus, the history of Finnish commercial game releases turned out to be at least five years longer than previously thought and has garnered, for the first time, major public coverage in Finland. It therefore appears that the discussion amongst hobbyists and researcher-hobbyists has emerged and strengthened during last few years.[7]

We would argue that such interest in discussing and representing the past was not only related to collecting of games, or sort of hobbyist retrogaming boom, but also to international emerging interest towards digital game preservation, exhibitions, and a turn towards the research of national and local aspects of games and game cultures (See also English blog writing on the history of Finnish digital games: Skäpädi Pöy 28.8.2013). This shift was also connected to the organization and recognition of the Finnish game industry.  It is a sign of legitimization and institutionalization processes of digital games in society.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as "Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. [...] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland." In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as “Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. […] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland.” In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

However, there has not been significant discussion about the first Finnish commercial game yet outside the hobbyist and academic communities, even though it seems to be emerging during the time of writing this article in autumn 2014.[8] Earlier, for example, one is not able to find many mentions of first games in the database of the largest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, nor in many other newspapers published by the same corporation. The references are from the 2000s and they are not connected to the first ever Finnish commercial game, but rather to the first Finnish publication for a certain new platform, such as first game for PS3 (Digitoday 27.4.2007), PS4, Nintendo Wii (Kauppalehti 23.6.2009, 14–15), Steam downloading platform (Digitoday 13.9.2006), etc. These mentions belong, thus, to contemporary discussion where the importance of the game industry has been acknowledged and where turning points are aimed at aimed at explaining contemporary use and applicably only for future history writings. The issues are distinctively connected to the economy, ICT sector, and new cultural industry.

When Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas and other games were published in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the game industry was an undeveloped field internationally. Historical understanding or awareness was not established, not even among game developers and players. The establishment of Finnish computer hobbyist and game oriented publications from the mid-1980s, created the needed public space for the creation and construction of historical understanding amongst hobbyists and players (see Saarikoski 2004; Suominen 2011). The press created hero stories about the earliest Finnish game designer individuals and occasionally introduced the first releases in a certain genre (first adventure game etc.) (Saarikoski 2004, 264), or underlined the historical importance of some new releases (such as the Sanxion game, published in 1986). Amersoft, however, had a somewhat marginal role in the early magazines, even though some of its publications were reviewed and it had advertised it products, primarily books, but also some games. These early computer hobbyist magazines and game magazines later on, including the above mentioned hero stories – which usually revealed histories of individual programmers or game designers as computer users, gamers and developers, have acted as sources when the interest towards the early phases of Finnish game industry has been emerged since the early 2000s.

In the beginning of the 2000s, new interest towards development of the Finnish game industry and education emerged. This was due to several, interconnected reasons. International success stories such as with the Max Payne (2001) PC-game, developed by Finnish company Remedy, raised interest towards the game industry. Importantly, it was situated in the international trend of new cultural and creative industries. Likewise, the triumph of cell phone corporation Nokia created an information and communication technological boom which, in its minor part, focused on mobile game software development.

Several game industry and education reports were published. Even though they mostly referred to the national history of game industry (typically excluding non-digital games, for example) very cursory, they articulated the more general trend, which with was related to the production of game historical narrative: the significant branch of industry had its roots. However, the origin story of game developers themselves did not mention Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas or some other early games but was fastened to so-called demoscene phenomenon due to the fact that some key persons of the focal firms, like Remedy and Housemarque, which had their background in the late 1980s and early 1990s demoscene (on demoscene’s role in the Nordic game industry, see Jørgensen et al. 2015). The demoscene origin story was introduced in the interviews of firm personnel in computer and game magazines and newspapers in the late 1990s. Later on, it has growth as a myth which has been repeated in publications as well as in the interviews of early game developers (e.g. Niipola 51–62; Kuorikoski 36–38).

But as we have argued, the primary “boom of the first” has started to emerge in last few years. It has mixed ingredients from new success stories of Finnish game industry, post-Nokia context, establishment of retrogaming, anniversaries as well as “awakenings” of memory organizations and researchers on questions of game history and preservation. What has happened? Who uses history, for what and why?

The First Game is both a piece of historical evidence and a symbol

We argue that cultural heritage process of digital games has reached a new phase, and the Finnish heritage community of digital games is actively involved in a new kind of identity work. The institutionalization of this new type of heritage has begun. The cultural heritage process of digital gaming can be observed in the context of the different levels of the cultures of history.

Oral and written histories are produced in three different fields. First, there is the academic field of history-cultural activities consisting of academic rules, refereed publications and academically trained researchers with doctoral degrees. Histories are based on the source criticism and supplementary rules of academic research. Secondly, there is a field of the public, which consists of politically controlled and publicly funded processes of cultural heritage with less strict academic control, but much more discussions on and monetary involvement. The institutionalization of cultural heritage takes often place on the second level of the cultures of history. It is conducted with political decisions, and there is not a specific means of control for the credibility of a frame story. The third field is the field of amateurs; such as individuals and groups of hobbyists, even families, selecting meaningful things from the more or less authentic remains of their pasts. The amateur is permitted to choose whatsoever (elements of) heritage and use any kind of frame stories as arguments, without an obligation to put the arguments to the test of any kind. The three fields of cultural heritage are interrelated.  Amateurs are often extremely active in the second field of cultures of history. An amateur may find academic research useful as a frame story that gives meaning to one’s own cultural heritage of her/his own.  An academic researcher or a politician may also be an enthusiastic amateur, and an academic researcher often uses the academic competences for to promote the cultural heritage process and consolidate the cultural heritage value of the historical remnants of her own hobby.  (Sivula 2013, 163; Aronsson 43.)

The case we described above shows that the first game historians were not usually “proper” professional historians, but more likely historically oriented amateurs. The active heritage community, in our case, consisted of the hobbyists.

It seems to be quite common, that the historicisation of a new culture begins among the community or groups of the amateur historians, involved in the historical process themselves. (Cf. history of computing and Lee 1996.) Because of this involvement, we refer to them as participatory historians. Amateur popular historians use often specific period-related concepts as metaphors or rhetorical elements.[9] Accurate or not, the amateur historian has already marked the turning points of the story, when an academic professional historian begins the research work. The preliminary plot of historical narrative, suggesting the argument for valuable cultural heritage, is often constructed by the amateurs.

The plot of history has, at least, a beginning and an end, and a change in between them. The emplotment of a history consists of the defining of the origins of the historicized phenomenon’s life cycle, marking some turning points of the process and constructing the end of the presentation. In the presentations of the history of digital gaming, there have been some international discussions on, what actually was the first game.  The battles of what came first are common in the discussions on the phenomena that are not yet historicized, however they can continue after that as well. Historian of an incomplete process is strongly interested in the beginnings of the process and the origins of the phenomenon.

Either the beginning or the end of a historical narrative is usually self-evident. The first and the last fact of a historical series are often chosen from among several options.  The defining of an origin, the beginning of the story, is an act of interpretation. It is, however, not an arbitrary one. The professional historian’s choice must be based on evidence. The interpretations are built in negotiations (Foucault 34; Ricoeur 143–144.) The plot of a written or orally solidified history determines the experienced value of the cultural heritage. The original game is experienced to be historically more valuable than the successor or a copy.

According to Michel Foucault, the past was an irregular chaos of events, and an oral or written history organizes these events. (Foucault 34–35.)  History gives comprehensibility to the past and solidifies the connections of separate events, building series of events and building the sense and sensibility of time and temporality. The oral or written, amateur or professional history, as a frame story of the cultural heritage process, solidifies the symbolic function of a monument.

There are some regular phases in every cultural heritage process. In our case, the digital game is originally used, functioning and experienced as a game. In the new context, though, it is defined in the historical frame story, it begins to be used and experienced as cultural heritage, either as a tool for to build the temporal identity of a heritage community, e.g. group of players, or as a tool of building the public image or other communicative activity of an enterprise or other corporation. Likewise, it could be used by the state or international organizations. For these goals they use all the other institutionalized cultural resources, such as education or cultural production. In the cultural heritage process, the use, function and experience of the game, all change. The public or private heritage community has either active or more or less subconscious goal of increasing the symbolic value of the game. The game with increased symbolic value, cultural heritage value, can still be played, although it might represent outdated technology and design.

When public resources and the academic field of history culture are involved in the cultural heritage process, the histories used as frame stories are most often based on academic, professional research. The interpretations pass the normal academic quality control. In the field of amateurs and in the private field the rules are different, but in many cases academic sub-contractors are hired for to produce the frame story.

When an object, e.g. a digital game, is identified as a symbol or evidence of the history shared by a group of the digital cultural heritage community, it receives a new social function. It is no longer only a game, but a monument or a place of memory. It is used, either with a playful sense of retro or in the more serious feeling of the memorizing the past, in commemorative rituals. It becomes a tool of identity work. (See also Heineman) Sooner or later, it may be rejected, changed, found to be useless or be replaced with another, more accurate tool, e.g. what we have learned with the changing definition of the first commercial computer game in Finland. Or the community, whose identity tool the cultural heritage was, may disband and move on (Bohman 17–23; Sivula 2013, 161–164).

Conclusion

Digital game culture is a unique field of contemporary culture, and a very interesting one at that. Our case study opens a view to the historiographical operations of participatory historians. Our case aids us in understanding the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities of the historiographical practice related to monuments. It helps to develop the methodology of analysing the historiographical operations, historicizing the contemporary culture. To be critical, we ought to know, how the monument of the first digital game was erected.

In most cases of the production of new monuments, the role of the amateur field has been essential. The production of monuments is a part of historiographical operations and it is clearly located in the documentary and representative phases of the model of historiographical operation, presented by Paul Ricoeur.

The right to choose a monument of digital game culture cannot be monopolized by either academics or amateurs. In our case, both academics and computer game hobbyists were active, selecting objects that they considered worth of preserving and creating monuments of Finnish game culture. In the case of the cultural heritage process of Finnish computer games, the academic field of history culture is closely and continuously interacting with the history-cultural field of amateurs. Many actors of the academic field do have a position in the field of amateurs as well. In other words: there are many computer game hobbyists among the academic researchers of the history of digital culture. The historiographical operation of digital games produces plethora of monuments.

The question of what was the first game becomes important in the phase of representation of historiographical operation. That is the phase where the plot of history is created. The question of what came first is often already answered, even before a professional historian gets an opportunity to make any conclusions.

We can conclude that there are some preconditions for a reliable definition of the firstness, when concerned with digital games. All the concurrent definitions must be observed critically, paying attention to the goals and needs of inventors of the monuments.

First, there is the contemporary definition. A chronicling actor has a motive to spot and articulate a new field, turning point or a milestone. The actor wishes to claim that something important, even revolutionary has happened. We must notice who is acting and why.

Second, there is a retrospective definition. Usually, it is connected to a situation and phase where certain field of actions is the subject of reformation and re-definition. Need for birth stories and origin stories, when legitimizing a need for a cultural industry and several organizations related to it, has taken place. It this case as well, economy and politics have certain role in the process. There is a supply of and demand for money.

Third, there is a specified retrospective definition. That happens, for example, when celebrating anniversaries. In Finland and within digital game cultures, this sort of definition has not happened until recent years and celebrations of the 30th anniversary of commercial game development and digital game importing businesses.

The knowledge related to what is first might become more exact, although this is not necessary. A contemporary definition of what has been the first do not occur, if phenomenon does not feel like significant for contemporaries – if they don’t comprehend that they are living “historical moments.” With the Finnish case, it was not until the publication of “the first Finnish adventure game”, a release of specific popular genre, was the rhetoric of first actually launched. Another option is that they do not comprehend something as being first: this question applies to what is Finnish, what is a game and what is commercial? Because definitions of all of the three aspects are controversial, it is difficult to define something as first Finnish commercial game publication.

The question of what is the first, functions on at least two levels: on one hand, it can deal with the particular first (first game ever), but essentially there are difficulties, and in many cases, that are not necessary to define. On the other hand, questions regarding firstness are connected to larger turning points and they are less difficult to outline: there is, for example, no doubt that that Commodore 64 was the first popular home computer in Finland and the first popular computer gaming device available.

 

Acknowledgements: We are grateful to the Kone Foundation for funding the Kotitietokoneiden aika ja teknologisen harrastuskulttuurin perintö [Home Computer Era and the Heritage of Technological Hobby Culture] project, and the Academy of Finland for funding Ludification and the Emergence of Playful Culture (decision #275421). In addition, we thank the two anonymous referees for their useful comments.

 

Works Cited

Interviews

Reunanen, Markku 5.3.2014, Facebook chat with Jaakko Suominen.

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Digitoday 2007

Kauppalehti 2009

MikroBitti 1984–1986

Poke&Peek 1983–1984

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AlarikRetro: “RahaRuhtinas (C64): Videoarvostelu” YouTube-video, published 8.12.2013.

Berschewsky, Tapio: “30 vuotta ennen Angry Birdsiä – Tämä on ensimmäinen kaupallinen suomalaispeli. Ilta-Sanomat Online” Ilta-Sanomat Online 28.7.2014.

Heinonen, Mikko: “Suomipelien kronikka” V2.fi 6.12.2009.

Jokinen, Pauli: “Raimo Suonio on Suomen pelintekijöiden pioneeri.” Helsingin Sanomat 10.8.2014.

Kauppinen, Jukka O.: “Onko tämä ensimmäinen suomalainen peli ikinä?” Dome.fi 27.6.2011.

Kauppinen, Jukka O.: “Suomalainen peliala 30 vuotta? Ehei, uusi löytö ajoittaa ensimmäisen kaupallisen suomipelin vuoteen 1979!” Dome.fi 28.7.2014.

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Pärssinen, Manu & Reunanen, Markku: “Ensimmäinen suomalainen tietokonepeli.” V2.fi 28.7.2014.

Rautanen, Niila T.: C= inside, Finnish Commodore Archive.

Sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com

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Notes

[1] See, for example, The Game Canon proposed for the Library of Congress, consisting of games such as Spacewar!, Tetris and Doom and selected by a committee comprising game historian Henry Lowood, game designers Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky and Matteo Bittanti, as well as blogger Christopher Grant.

[2] We thank referee number two for giving us information on some more recent software preservation projects: Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report (2010); Preserving.Exe. Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (2013); Emulation & Virtualization as Preservation Strategies (2015); Software Preservation Network Proposal (2015).

[3] The constructionistically oriented researchers of heritagization, e.g. Laurajane Smith, do not use the concept of monument in the sense we do. From the point of view of the historicization of a tangible or intangible object, the concept of monument is useful.

[4] The specific group, working with its identity in the process of cultural heritage, can be named as cultural heritage community.

[5] The line between the artifacts/monuments and commodities becomes less clear when old devices and game software are bought and sold at Internet auction sites. Various music videos, works of art, books and new editions and revisions of old game products– in some degree commercials as well – are also commodities of the cultures of history (Author 2 & Author 1 2004). (See Suominen 2008; 2012.)

[6] In a Facebook chat discussion with Jaakko Suominen, Markku Reunanen explains background of the rewriting the history of the first. According to Reunanen, they received new information while they browsed online Finnish Commodore archive maintained by a hobbyist Niila T. Rautanen (Rautanen: Commodore Archive). Rautanen has gathered games, screen shots, some information and for example scanned early Poke&Peek Commodore magazines, published by the Finnish Commodore importer. The magazines proved to be an important source of information. Amersoft had released several games in 1984, and according to Reunanen, mentioned publication order of 1984 releases in Videogames.fi, was based on mainly to reasoning. VIC-20 computer was simpler than Commodore 64 and the popularity of VIC was decreasing in 1984. Reunanen states that Raharuhtinas for Commodore 64 represent “more advanced programming” and Mehulinja had won an earlier VIC-20 programming contest. (Reunanen 5.3.2014, FB-chat.)

[7] In addition to Jukka O. Kauppinen, Mikko Heinonen from Pelikonepeijoonit collector community, started in the 1990s, has specifically contributed to discussion. For example, he published “for honor of Finnish Independence Day,” “A Chronicle of Finnish Games” in 6 December 2009, where he divided the history into “prehistory,” “middle ages,” and “modern times” (Heinonen 6.12.2009) and started his “prehistory” from Amersoft publications and claiming wrongly that Yleisurheilu was published in 1986. The association of Finnish Game Developers, for their part, published on their website “A Short history of Finnish game industry” in October 2011 where they alleged that Sanxion by Stavros Fasoulas, published for Commodore 1986 was the first Finnish commercial game (Suomen Pelinkehittäjät Ry 3.10.2011). Actually, the particular game was the first larger international Finnish computer game hit, released by the British company, Thalamus, but not the first.

[8] The situation has partially changed after that, however, mainly because the introduction of Finnish Museum of Games project. The Museum, partially based on a crowd funding project, will be opened in January 2017 (http://suomenpelimuseo.fi/in-english/).

[9] That is why, for instance, in the above mentioned case, a journalist has applied terms such as “pre-history”, “middle-ages” and “modern times” to game historical representations.

 

Bios

Jaakko Suominen has a PhD in Cultural History and is Professor of Digital Culture at University of Turku, Finland. With a focus on cultural history of media and information technologies, Suominen has studied computers and popular media, internet, social media, digital games, and theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of digital culture. He has lead several multi-disciplinary research projects and has over 100 scholarly publications.

Anna Sivula has a PhD in History and is a Professor of Cultural Heritage at University of Turku, Finland. Sivula has studied theoretical, methodological and cultural aspects of cultural heritage process and heritage communities, historiographical operation and historical culture. She has written commissioned histories and led several research projects.

Born Digital Cultural Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

The collection and preservation of the ‘born digital’ has, in recent years, become a growing and significant area of debate. The honeymoon years are over and finally institutions are beginning to give serious consideration to best practice for digital preservation strategies and the establishment of digital collections. Digital technology emerges and disappears with incredible speed, as a once-new piece of hardware or software becomes old and is replaced by the next technological advancement. What happens to: videogame software and hardware of the 1980s and 90s? The web browsers, blogs and social media sites and content they once displayed? The artworks that relied on pre-2000 computers to create art? Are these – amongst many other – digital creations fated to be abandoned, becoming only memories of individual experience? Are they to be collected by institutions as defunct objects? Or are they to be preserved and revived using new digital technology? These are but a few of the serious questions facing collecting institutions. The question of who is responsible for collecting, preserving and historicising born digital cultural heritage is a crucial one, as is the issue of best practice – what are the best ways to preserve and make accessible such born digital heritage?

In June 2014, our “Play It Again”[1] project team ran an international conference on “The Born Digital and Cultural Heritage” that aimed to convene a forum where some of these issues could be discussed. “Play It Again” was a three year project focused on the history and preservation of microcomputer games written in 1980s Australia and New Zealand, but as the first digital preservation project to be funded as research in this part of the world (at least to our knowledge), it also had a broader significance. We tried to use it to raise awareness around some of the threats facing born digital cultural production more broadly, beyond 1980s digital games. Two of the project’s aims were to “Enhance appreciation for the creations of the early digital period” and “To build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’”, both critical issues internationally. A two-day event held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, the conference’s remit was thus deliberately wider than the focus of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

The need for cooperation between different stakeholders – legislative bodies, professionals working in different types of institutions, and the private sector – was a key recommendation of the 2012 “Vancouver Declaration,” a Memory of the World initiative (UNESCO). Born digital artefacts often require multiple sets of expertise, therefore our call for papers invited proposals from researchers and practitioners in a range of disciplines, spheres of practice and institutional contexts concerned with born digital heritage. This included libraries, archives, museums, galleries, moving image institutions, software repositories, universities, and more besides. We wanted to create a space where communication between the different types of professionals dealing with preservation of born digital cultural heritage could take place. Archivists, librarians, conservators, and moving image archivists share many challenges, yet, we suspect, often they attend conferences which are profession based, which enforces a kind of silo-ing of knowledge. Particularly in small countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s a need for conversations to take place across professional boundaries, and so we sought to bring people who perhaps don’t normally move in the same circles into contact.

The presentations during the conference ranged in approach from theoretical, to practical, to policy-oriented. We gloried in the range of papers that were presented. There were game histories, reflections on the demoscene, on net.art and other forms of media art, on born digital manuscripts, robots, twitter accounts and website archiving. As well as papers addressing different forms of heritage materials, there were also technical reports on the problems with hacking and patching disk images to get them to emulate, on software migration, and legal papers on copyright protection, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. (Audio of many of the presentations is available here. The variety of presentations made painfully visible the enormous task at hand in addressing born digital cultural heritage.

While Refractory focuses on entertainment media, in this issue we recognise that born digital entertainment media share many of the challenges of non-entertainment objects. Here, we have collected article versions of selected papers from the conference. The topics and subjects are varied – from those looking more broadly at approaches to born digital heritage and the preservation of digital art, to the documentation of and public discourse about early game histories, and to future creative writing practice facilitated through the collection of digital manuscripts.

In his paper “It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage” (which was a keynote address), Henry Lowood examines the preservation and collection of digital media in the context of cultural heritage. Lowood is concerned with “the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software” and poses the question “Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it?” He argues that “answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history”. Using the examples of ‘The Historian’, ‘The Media Archaeologist’ and ‘The Re-enactor’ his paper raises important questions about the function, purpose and varied approaches to the digital archive. The historian, he states, is interested in the digital archival material in order to interpret, reconstruct and retell its story in history. For the media archaeologist, “media machines are transparent in their operation” and, rather than requiring interpretation, speak of their pastness by making possible the playback of “historical media on historical machines”. Finally, for ‘The Re-enactor’, ‘authenticity’ is a crucial factor for digital preservation; however, the question of authenticity is fraught with debate – on the one hand, the re-enactor at one extreme insists on a “fidelity of play” with the software that engages with technology (hardware and software) in its original state, and at the other extreme is the re-enactor who is willing to forgo the historical machine in favour of emulation and virtualisation that recreates an embodied experience of ‘playing’ with the original software, whether a game or word processing program. In either case, as Lowood explains, “Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience.”

In their article “Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012”, Amanda Pagliarino and artist George Poonkhin Khut present an account of Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, which uses the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts,’ which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition “was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state”. The authors explain that this biofeedback artwork is ‘iterative’ and Khut continued to develop the work in other iterations that include updates for the BrightHearts app for touch screen devices. This article describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in its acquisition, archiving, and the consultations that took place between the artist and the collecting institution. As the writers argue “to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource” that includes documentation and description of the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork in its early state and as it evolved in Khut’s art practise. This archival resource will make it possible for the work to be reinterpreted “at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended”. In this respect, Distillery: Waveforming is understood as a “legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations” of Khut’s larger Biofeedback Project.

The next article “There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit” by Veronika Megler focuses on the iconic text adventure game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), which Megler co-wrote during the final year of her Bachelor of Science degree at Melbourne University. This paper is a case history of the development of the The Hobbit (based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel of the same name) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market. Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. Megler describes the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique. She compares the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time, and wraps up by discussing the game’s legacy and the recent revival of interest in the game.

Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula’s article “Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process — Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game” continues with games, analysing how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the article examines the amateur and professional historicisation of computer games. The authors argue that the production of cultural heritage is a process of constructing symbolic monuments that are often related to events of change or the beginning of a progressive series of events, and the article presents an account of the formation of games as symbolic cultural monuments within a Finnish context. Whilst many researchers and journalists have claimed that Raharuhtinas (Money Prince 1984) for Commodore 64 was the first Finnish commercial digital game, its status as such is controversial. As the authors explain, “in this paper, we are more interested in public discourse of being the first” and how this relates to the cultural heritage process. The case of the ‘first’ game, it is argued, illuminates how items are selected as building material for digital game cultural heritage.

In “Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity”, Millicent Weber turns to digital manuscripts, their collection, preservation and digital storage by collecting institutions. Weber argues that libraries, archives and scholars have not addressed the content of future digital or part-digital collections, or their capacity to support sustained scholarly research. This paper examines the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, the article compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell are used to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. Weber concludes that the results indicate both the great diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and the importance of archival institutions adopting an active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

The collection and preservation of born digital cultural heritage is of critical importance. In the digital era, “Heritage refers to legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what should be passed from generation to generation because of its significance and value” (UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force 16). If we want to ensure that records and works from this era persist, we will need to substantially ramp up our efforts. Cooperation between different stakeholders is critical and the research sector has an important role to play, in undertaking collaborative research with cultural institutions to tackle some of the thornier challenges surrounding the persistence of born digital cultural heritage.

Works cited

UNESCO. “UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force. “The UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation.” 2016. Web.

 

[1] The “Play It Again” project received support under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding Scheme (project number LP120100218). See our research blog and the “Popular Memory Archive” for more information on the project.

 

Bios

Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures, and histories. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship for her project “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Between 2011-15, she was Project Leader and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project “Play It Again“. In 2009, Melanie was the Nancy Keesing Fellow (State Library of New South Wales). She has authored chapters and articles in both traditional and interactive formats, in such esteemed journals as ConvergenceVectors, and the Journal of Visual Culture. Melanie’s projects include:

  • “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Watch the filmhere.
  • Australasian Digital Heritage, which gathers together several local digital heritage research projects. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @ourdigiheritage
  • Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes”, ARC Linkage, 2012-14. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @AgainPlay, and visit the Popular Memory Archive.

 

Angela Ndalianis is Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University, and the Director of the Transformative Technologies Research Unit (Faculty of Arts). Her research interests include: genre studies, with expertise in the horror and science fiction genres; entertainment media and media histories; the contemporary entertainment industry. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004), Science Fiction Experiences (New Academia 2010), The Horror Sensorium; Media and the Senses (McFarland 2012) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, Routledge 2008). She is currently completing two books: Batman: Myth and Superhero; and Robots and Entertainment Culture. She is also a Fellow of the Futures of Entertainment Network (U.S), and is the Hans Christian Andersen Academy’s Visiting Professor (2015-7), a position also affiliated with the University of Southern Denmark.   

Defining the Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s DISTILLERY: WAVEFORMING, 2012 – Amanda Pagliarino & George Poonhkin Khut

 

Abstract:  George Poonkhin Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, was the winner of the 2012 National New Media Art Award. This immersive installation artwork is a biofeedback, controlled interactive that utilises the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts’. Khut has an interest in the continued development of the ‘BrightHearts’ app to the point of making it available as a download from iTunes App Store to be used in conjunction with specialised pulse-sensing hardware.  The configuration of Distillery: Waveforming presented in 2012 at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, incorporated Apple iPad 4th generation devices running the ‘BrightHearts’ app supported by Mac mini computers that processed data and mapped sound and visuals that were fed back to users as animations on the iPads. At the conclusion of the exhibition the artwork was acquired into the Queensland Art Gallery collection.  The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition ensure that the artwork was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state.  The iPad devices underwent jailbreaks to safeguard their independent operation and management, and to allow for the permanent installation of non-expiring copies of the ‘BrightHearts’ app.  Source code for the ‘BrightHearts’ app was also archived into the collection. This paper describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in the acquisition and archiving of an iPad artwork

 

Figure 1. George Poonkhin Khut, Australia b.1969, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, Custom software and custom heart rate monitor on iPad and Mac mini signal analysis software: Angelo Fraietta and Tuan M Vu; visual effects software: Jason McDermott, Greg Turner; electronics and design: Frank Maguire; video portraits: Julia Charles, Installed dimensions variable, The National New Media Art Award 2012. Purchased 2012 with funds from the Queensland Government. Image: Mark Sherwood

Figure 1. George Poonkhin Khut, Australia b.1969, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, Custom software and custom heart rate monitor on iPad and Mac mini signal analysis software: Angelo Fraietta and Tuan M Vu; visual effects software: Jason McDermott, Greg Turner; electronics and design: Frank Maguire; video portraits: Julia Charles, Installed dimensions variable, The National New Media Art Award 2012. Purchased 2012 with funds from the Queensland Government. Image: Mark Sherwood

George Poonhkin Khut’s digital artwork Distillery: Waveforming is a body-focused, controlled, interactive experience. The artwork was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in 2012 and has been the subject of an ongoing dialogue between the artist and the Gallery, through the Head of Conservation and Registration, regarding its long-term preservation.  At the heart of the artwork is an individual, human experience with certain intrinsic elements combining to create this experience. In their endeavour to provide a sound future plan for Distillery: Waveforming they have questioned ‘the experience’ from their individual perspectives – that of the artist and the collecting institution.

Distillery: Waveforming is both an independent artwork and an affiliated outcome of Khut’s long running work with heart rate biofeedback. This unusual duality plays a significant role in the ways in which the artist and the institution perceive the artwork, its preservation and future installations. Since the artwork’s acquisition into the QAGOMA collection the artist has remained involved and interested in the Gallery’s management of Distillery: Waveforming. Khut’s progress in his work on the biofeedback project has seen him make significant advances in software development, allowing him to release the iTunes application BrightHearts that was in-development at the time that Distillery: Waveforming was created. These advances in the biofeedback project provide current context to the dialogue and continue to shape the opinions of both artist and institution. Through this collaborative process QAGOMA has been able to build an extensive resource for the long-term preservation of Distillery: Waveforming.

HISTORY AND BACKGROUND: BIOFEEDBACK IN ART AND MEDICINE

George Poonhkin Khut’s biofeedback artwork Distillery: Waveforming was the winning entry in the 2012 National New Media Award (NNMA) held at the Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA 2012). The artwork entered the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art collection at the conclusion of the exhibition. The curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the artwork be acquired to accurately reflect its display in the NNMA exhibition – that is as a prototype.

In 2011 when Khut was invited to enter the NNMA he was working as the Artist in Residence at the Children’s Hospital Westmead. In this residency Khut and his research colleagues commenced the BrightHearts Project that aimed ‘to assess the potential of small, portable biofeedback-based interactive artworks to mediate the perception and performance of the body in paediatric care: as experienced by children undergoing painful recurrent procedures’ (Khut et.al 2011).

Apple iPads loaded with games were already in use for diversion and distraction purposes during painful procedures at the Children’s Hospital Westmead. Khut chose to adapt his work for iPad technology for the BrightHearts Project based on this ‘diversional’ precedent and the excellent optical qualities of the iPad display (Khut 2014). In realising Distillery: Waveforming Khut channelled years of artistic practice in biofeedback and body-focused interactivity in the development of a cross-disciplinary artwork at the core of which was the prototype BrightHearts application (app) for Apple iPad.

When Distillery: Waveforming was displayed in the NNMA exhibition, from August to November 2012, the BrightHearts app was still in-development under a short-term Apple Developer licence. At this point in the provisioning, the prototype app generated the visuals on the iPad in response to a multilayered array of messages transmitted from a laptop or desktop computer over a network connection. This approach enable Khut to quickly prototype a variety of visualisation ideas by adjusting parameters on the desktop computer, without needing to compile and install the app on to the iPad each time. More importantly, at the time of its development – this networked approach also enabled him to incorporate live heart rate sensor data in a way that was not supported by the Apple operating system (iOS) at the time (before the introduction of the Bluetooth 4.0 wireless standard), and to continue his work with complex signal analysis, mapping and sonification algorithms that have been central to his work with body-focussed interactions since 2003. Essentially Distillery: Waveforming and the trial therapeutic devices at the Children’s Hospital Westmead were operating as ensembles that included iPads loaded with the prototype BrightHearts app, data collection devices, and desktop/laptop computers and network routing systems.

DISTILLERY: WAVEFORMING

Acquiring Distillery: Waveforming to reflect its status as a prototype was a curatorial imperative. Khut describes his approach to the long-running biofeedback project as ‘iterative’ and in this regard the artwork is an incremental representation of Khut’s artistic practice and a model demonstration of the developmental BrightHearts app for touch screen devices (Khut and Muller 2005). In the future Distillery: Waveforming will become a legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations in the biofeedback project.

Distillery: Waveforming derives from Khut’s earlier work on BrightHearts that commenced in 2011 and his Cardiomorphologies series from 2004-2007. The mandala-like visuals were initially developed for Cardiomorphologies v.1 by John Tonkin using Java programming which Khut controlled via Cycling’74’s Max (version 4.5) application, a popular visual programming language for Apple and Windows computers. In 2005 the original visualisation software was expanded upon by Greg Turner for Cardiomorphologies v.2 using visuals generated from within the Max application. Turner used the C++ programming language to develop ‘Fireball’ a specialised graphic module (known in the Max programing environment as an ‘object’) – that enabled Khut to control the visuals with messages to each layer, for example, drawing a red coloured ring, the width of the screen, with a thickness of 20 pixels, and a green circle with a gradient, with a diameter of 120 pixels (Khut 2014; Pagliarino 2015, pp. 68-69).

Then in 2011 Jason McDermott, a multi-disciplinary designer working in the area of information visualisation and architecture, was engaged to re-write Greg Turner’s ‘Fireball’ visualisation software to enable it to run on hand-held technologies with touch sensitive controls. Using the open source C++ library openFrameworks with Apple’s Xcode (version 4) McDermott redesigned and expanded the potential of the software, developing BrightHearts as an iOS 5 mobile operating system application (McDermott 2013).

Development of the app continued when Khut received the NNMA prize worth AUS$75,000 and in April 2014 the BrightHearts app was released into the iTunes store. Heart rate data acquisition and processing is now integrated into the application software and the only external device that is required in conjunction with the app is a Bluetooth 4.0 heart rate monitor that captures the real-time heart rate data. The app is categorised as a Health and Fitness product that can be used to assist with relaxation and body awareness (iTunes 2014).

This history of development, change, modification and repurposing creates a landscape in which Distillery: Waveforming is an important new media artwork. As a legacy artwork the Gallery aims to maintain the component parts and software in their original form and function for as long as possible. Technologies change at such a rapid rate that the artwork will date in the years to come to reflect, quite evidently, an artwork of 2012.  Perhaps future users will consider what are at present beautifully rich and transcendent animations as rudimentary and the touch screen navigation amusing and unsophisticated. Perhaps future users will recapture the sense of appeal that early touch screen devices inspired in consumers. However, it is not the intention of the Gallery to create a sense of nostalgia but to offer insights into the balance between art, technology and science at this fixed point in time.  As a legacy the artwork will be an authentic installation and will offer an unambiguous window into Khut’s interdisciplinary artistic practice.

In its presentation in the NNMA exhibition Distillery: Waveforming was configured of five iPad devices running the prototype BrightHearts app that were built into a long, shallow, tilled table at which participants sat on low stools to interact with the artwork. Specifications set by the artist allow the Gallery to modify the configuration for smaller displays of no fewer than three stations in future installations. However it is necessary that the ambiance of the installation space affect a sense of calm and contemplation by utilising low light levels, soft dark colours and discrete use of technology. In the original installation the spatial arrangement situated participants in front of three video portraits of the artwork in use (Fig 1). Distillery: Waveforming is a composite artwork incorporating the iPad devices loaded with the prototype BrightHearts app, external data collection and processing equipment and video portraits displayed on monitors. The combined hardware and software systems include:

  • Five Apple iPads (3rd generation) operating on the iOS 5.1.1 operating system, with retina display high resolution (2,048 x 1,536 pixels at 264 ppi) and dual-core Apple A5X chip

Loaded with:

  • BrightHearts app (in-development)
  • Cydia – a software application that enables the user to search for and install applications on jailbroken iOS devices
  • Activator app – a jailbreak application launcher for mobile devices
  • IncarcerApp – an application that disables the home button and effectively locks on the BrightHearts app when in use, preventing the user from inadvertently exiting the app
  • Five heart rate sensors incorporating Nonin PureSat Pulse Oximeters (ear clip type) sensors, a Nonin OEM III Pulse Oximetry circuits and Aduino Pro Mini 328 microcomputers, running specially written code (OemPulseFrank.pde) to receive the pulse data from the pulse oximeter sensors – and relay this to the MacMini’s via a USB-serial connection.
  • Five Mac minis 5.2, 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, 10.7.5 (OSX Lion) operating system

Running:

  • Max6 application (Cycling74, 2012)
  • Custom written scripts running from OSX ‘Terminal’ utility, that receive pulse data from the sensors via USB port and pass this along to Max6
  • One 5.0 GHz network router that transmits control data from the Max6 software on the Mac minis to the corresponding iPads.
  • Three digital portraits displayed on 40” LCD / LED monitors hung in portrait orientation
  • Video portrait files include MPEG-4, QuickTime ProRes and AVC file formats
  • Five headband-style stereo headsets

The prototype BrightHearts app for Distillery: Waveforming was written for Apple iPad (3rd gen) models running iOS 5.1.1. It was written under a short-term Apple Developer licence that allowed for provisioning and testing of the app on multiple devices. The licencing arrangement for the app expired in July 2013, nine months after the artwork was acquired by into the collection. A key aspect of archiving this artwork was the need to gain control of the app and in advance of the expiration the Gallery implemented an archiving strategy that was developed through consultation between the conservator, curator and the artist who was in contact with the software developer.

The most challenging aspect of the acquisition for the collecting institution was the long-term management of the proprietary technology and software. At the time of acquisition the prototype BrightHearts app was capable of performing a function with external support but did not have status as an independent Apple-approved application. In fact, its completion and approval was still one and half years away. It was also important for the iPad operating system to be locked down to iOS 5.1.1 as the prototype BrightHearts app for Distillery: Waveforming will only launch in this version. Through a consultative process it was agreed that to administer the artwork as an authentic prototype it was necessary to increase the end user control of the technology and software.  This was achieved through jailbreaking the iPad devices and loading a non-expiring copy of the prototype BrightHearts app on the iPads (Pagliarino 2015).

MAINTAINING AN AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE

Distillery: Waveforming has been acquired with the intention of maintaining authenticity and as such the Gallery has archived a full complement of digital files for the artwork. Included in this is source code for compiling the BrightHearts application with Xcode and source code for compiling the pulse-sensing Arduino microcontrollers for which Khut owns both copyrights (Khut 2012).

In conventional object-oriented programming source code, a programming sequence in readable text, outlines the steps that are necessary to compile software and make it function as intended, for example an app for an iPad. The source code has to be interpreted or compiled by a programmer in order to create the necessary machine code, for example Xcode if the work is developed for Apple OSX. Acquiring source code is thought to be a means of future-proofing digital artworks (Collin and Perrin 2013, p.52). This is undeniable as without the source code there is very little that can be used as a structural guide. However, Laforet et al. (2010, p.27) questions whether source code can really act as a safety net for software artworks in an age where there is a strong commercial imperative driving the development of digital technologies at the expense of the conservation of data.  The success of source code to future-proof artworks relies on accurate interpretation and, in the context of an authentic experience, a complete lack of bias towards alternate or more efficient ways of programming the software to run an artwork as it was intended.

In cases where an artwork was developed using a suite of applications and programming languages, documenting source code becomes a complicated task in comparison to artworks where the source code is contained entirely within a single object-oriented programming environment. The programing for Distillery: Waveforming is distributed across three operating systems and four programming languages: Arduino for the sensor hardware; Objective C and iOS5 (via Xcode 4) for the BrightHearts app; OSX for the desktop computer that operates as a terminal emulator, running sensor data routing and analysis processes; and most significantly  Max,  the visual programing application that is used to perform the core analysis, mapping and sonification processes between the incoming heart rate data and the outgoing messages controlling the appearance of the various layers of the iPad visuals and sounds. Laforet et al. confirms that the difficulties faced with software artworks created by individual programmers are that:

These projects are relatively small efforts, putting the work created with it in a very fragile position. Unlike more popular software and languages, they are not backed up by an industry or a community demanding stability. The software only works under very specific conditions at a very specific time. Migrating such a work is a tremendous task, likely to involve the porting of a jungle of obscure libraries and frameworks. (Laforet et al. 2010, p. 29)

The complexity of combining multiple source codes from various programming platforms to work within one artwork significantly increases the risk of error in interpretation. In the case of Distillery: Waveforming it seems highly unlikely that source code alone would be sufficient to recreate the artwork in future. Khut has recognised this and has considered alternate bespoke and existing documentation systems for both Distillery: Waveforming and BrighHearts for the purpose of preservation and representation.

Visually the prototype BrightHearts app consists of 22 individually controlled graphic layers. Each layer is comprised of a single polygon that can be drawn as a solid shape or a ring, the edges of the shape can be blurred and the colour can be varied according to hue, saturation, alpha & value (brightness). The layers are then blended using an ‘additive’ compositing process, so that the layers interact with one another, for example a combination of overlapping red, green and blue shapes would produce white. This additive blending is a crucial aspect of the work’s visual aesthetic.

While the visuals are rendered on the iPad by the app developed by Jason McDermott, using Xcode and the openFrameworks libraries, the actual moment-by-moment instructions regarding what shapes are to be drawn, colour, size brightness etc. are all sent from the Max document.

The Max document, the top level ‘patch’ as it is referred to in the Max programming environment, is the heart of the work: the primary mediating layer between the sensor and display hardware that determines how changes in heart rate will control the appearance and sound of the work. It consists of an input section that receives sensor data, an analysis section that generates statistics from the heart rate measurements, and mapping layers that map these statistics to the various audio and graphic variables of colour, shape, volume etc.

The modular design methods used in the Max programming environment allow for the creation of modular units of code referred to as ‘abstractions’ and ‘bpatchers’, that can be re-used in multiple instances to process many variables using a very simple set of instructions. The programming for Distillery: Waveforming makes extensive use of these modules, which are stored as discreet ‘.maxpat’ files within the Max folder on the Mac mini computer. These modules are used for many of the repetitive statistical processes used to analyse the participant’s heart rate, as well as the mappings used to create the highly layered visuals and sounds that are central to the aesthetic of Distillery: Waveforming.

In the analysis section of the programming, changes in average heart rate are calculated over different time frames: the average rate of the last four heart beats, the average rate of the last sixteen heart beats, then thirty-two heart beats and so on, as well as information about the direction of these changes, enabling the work to track when the participant’s heart rate is starting to increase or decrease.

Within Max, the twenty-two graphic layers of visuals used in the prototype BrightHearts app, are each controlled by a corresponding ‘bpatcher’ layer-control module. Each of these ‘bpatcher’ modules contain 107 variables that determine how the parameters of all the layers are controlled. That is what aspect of the participant’s heart rate patterning it responds to and how these changes are mapped to variables such as diameter and colour of the layer in question.

Each layer-control module is comprised of sixteen sub-modules responsible for specific aspects of each layer’s appearance such as diameter, hue, saturation, and shape-type. In the programming of the layer-control modules the boxes of numbers visible in each module describe how incoming data relating to heart rate is mapped to the behaviour of the layer, in this case its diameter, and what statistical information it will respond to such as a running average of the last thirty-two heart beats, a normalised and interpolated waveform representing breath-related variations in heart rate, or the pulse of each heartbeat (Fig 2).

Figure 2: Four of the twenty-two layer-control mapping modules in Max – used to control the shapes drawn on the iPad by the BrightHearts (prototype) app.

All of these variables, controlling the appearance of each layer, are stored and recalled using a table of preset values describing which statistics each layer and variable responds to and how it interprets this input. These numbers are adjusted by the artist to produce the desired mapping and dynamic range and then stored in the .json file and recalled as presets. The information contained in this table is stored as a ‘preset file’ in a .json xml format file that is read when the Max document is launched. These preset files document the precise mapping and scaling settings that determine the appearance and behaviour of each layer of the artwork. Together these layered behaviours and the preset values that describe them produce the final interactive visual aesthetic of the artwork.

Figure 3: Example of one section of the .json ‘preset’ file containing preset data that is read by each of the graphics mapping modules – in this example showing all the parameters used to control the behaviour of the diameter  for Layer 15.

 

For the artist, these preset tables are of central importance for documenting the appearance and interactive behaviour of the artwork for future interpretations, since it is these values that determine how the work responds to changes in the participant’s heart rate.

Strategies for hardware independent migration and reinterpretation

Khut has begun the process of documenting and describing the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork independent from current technologies to enable the work to be recreated in the future, based on the Variable Media Network approaches set out by Ippolito (2003a).

For creators working in ephemeral formats who want posterity to experience their work more directly than through second-hand documentation or anecdote, the variable media paradigm encourages creators to define their work independently from medium so that the work can be translated once its current medium is obsolete.
This requires creators to envision acceptable forms their work might take in new mediums, and to pass on guidelines for recasting work in a new form once the original has expired.

Variable Media Network, Definition – Ippolito, 2003b

For Khut, the essence of the artwork that would need to be preserved and recreated, independent of the specific technologies currently used, is the experience of having one’s breathing, nervous system, pulse and heart rate patterning represented in real time in an interactive audio visual experience, and the various optical and kinaesthetic sensations and correlations that are experienced during this interaction.

Taking an experience-centred approach it is not the source code as much as the experience of the visuals and sounds changing in response to the live heart rate data that is most essential to recreating the artwork. The aesthetic experience of interacting with the artwork, and the maner in which it responds to changes in heart rate initiated through slow breathing and relaxation is crucial to its authenticity.

The schematic approach: an open ‘score’ for reinterpretation

The simplest approach to documentation for future reinterpretation is the use of a very flexible set of instructions outlining the core interactive form and behaviour of the artwork. This approach leaves many aspects of the artwork’s appearance open to interpretation. Essentially what is preserved is the basic nature of the transformation – from breath, pulse and nervous system to colour, diameter, shape and sound. Such an approach would comprise the following instructions:

The visuals and sounds have been designed to respond to two forms of interaction:
1) gradual decreases in heart rate caused by a general increase in the participants ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system activity that can be initiated through conscious relaxation of muscles in the face, neck, shoulders and arms,

2) breath-related variations in heart rate known as ‘respiratory sinus arrhythmia’ whereby slow inhalation causes an increase in heart rate, and slow exhalation causes a decrease in heart rate.

The result being a wave-like (sine) oscillation in heart rate to which the work owes its name (wave forming).

 

Features extracted from Participant’s pulse and heart rate Name of modulation source (controling the sounds/visuals) Visual representation on tablet surface Sonic representation as heard through headphones
Pulsing heart beat /beat/bang Gently throbbing circular shapes that either contract subtly with each pulse, or darken slightly with each pulse – to create a visual effect of subtle pulsing. A deep and soft throbbing noise that gets louder and brighter as heart rate increases, and softer as heart rate decreases.
Breath-related variations in heart rate – normalised and rescaled to emphasise slow, wave-like oscillations in heart rate that can be induced through recurrent slow breathing at around 6 breaths per minute. /IBI/dev-mean/4/normalised Ring-shaped layers that expand when heart rate is increasing, and contract when heart rate is decreasing. Synthesized drone sound, modulated with a ‘phasor’ effect controlled by breath-related changes in heart rate.
Gradual changes in average heart rate (average of last 32 beats) mediated by changes in autonomic nervous system (stress/relaxation), neck, shoulder arm muscle relaxation etc. /IBI/how-slow/32 Colour of background gradient – red for fastest heart rates recorded since start of session, green for medium, and blue for slowest average heart rate recorded since start of session. Pitch of synthesized drone sound – crossfades through overlapping notes in C Melodic Minor scale – from B6 to A2
threshold points triggered by decreases in heart rate (/IBI/how-slow/32) musical notes and burst of colour. Circular, expanding bursts of colour from centre – fading out when they reach the edge of the frame. Highly reverberant electric piano sounds triggered when threshold crossed – synchronised with burst of colour. Pitch descends in C Melodic Minor scale according to decrease in heart rate
When participants sustain a slow relaxed breath pattern at around 6 breaths per minute, Frequency-domain analysis of heart rate variability will report the appearance of a ‘resonant peak’ around 0.1Hz (6 breaths per minute). There are six thresholds: 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50. Each time one of these thresholds is crossed – a message is generated that is used to control an audio and visual event /spectrum/resonant-peak-resonance A large, soft-edged blue ring expands slowly out beyond the edges of the frame and then slowly fades away.

 

Threshold 25 = yellow

Threshold 30 = yellow-green

Threshold 35 = green-yellow

Threshold 40 = green

Threshold 45 = cyan

Threshold 50 = indigo

 

 

Very soft, muted and heavily reverberated piano note, with slow decay

 

Threshold 25 = D#3

Threshold 30 = A#3

Threshold 35 = D#4

Threshold 40 = F4

Threshold 45 = G4

Threshold 50 = A#4

Table 1: showing relationship of key mappings in Distillery Waveforming heart rate controlled artwork. Table 1 lists the key heart rate variables and their mapping to the main visual and sonic representations. The most basic recreation of the work according to the scheme laid out in this table would still require instructions for obtaining and generating the modulation sources from the heart rate data: the algorithms that scale and interpolate the heart rate data and translate these beat-by-beat messages into smooth, continuous control signals.

The translation approach: calibration tools and resources

A second, more precise approach for reinterpretation provides a set of documents to help future developers interpret and translate the original code and .json preset data to provide an aesthetic experience more closely aligned to the artwork at the time it was acquired by QAGOMA (Fig 3). This information is contained in a set of calibration images and accompanying tables that provide a crucial link for reinterpretations of the artwork, allowing future programmers to determine how values stored in the original preset files relate to the appearance of each of the work’s 22 graphic layers. Many aspects of the prototype BrightHearts app’s interpretation of these messages are not linear in their response and it can be seen that the gradients for each shape blend differently according to hue (Fig 4). It is hoped that these calibration images will help future programmers to compare how their own code interprets the messages stored in the preset files, against the behaviour and appearance of original prototype BrightHearts iPad app.

Figure 4: Example of one of the calibration images and accompanying tables describing how the messages from the Max software are interpreted by the visualisation software of the BrightHearts (prototype) App on the iPad.

Figure 4: Example of one of the calibration images and accompanying tables describing how the messages from the Max software are interpreted by the visualisation software of the BrightHearts (prototype) App on the iPad.

 

Summary of documentation strategy for future translation

Documentation element Description
Broad schematic mapping of real time heart rate statistics to sounds and visuals Describes the basic interaction concept and interaction experience: images and sounds controlled by slow changes in heart rate that can be influenced through slow breathing and relaxation/excitement.
Experiential aims and conditions for interaction Describes the environmental conditions proscribed by the artist – to ensure optimum conditions for interaction i.e. minimise audio-visual distractions.
Documentation of Max patch: Annotations in each section of Max code: the subsections (‘subpatches’, ‘abstractions’, and ‘bpatchers’) of the main file – describe the flow of information, through each section.

Document each section as a numbered image file, accompanied by notes describing how information is being modified/transformed.

Heart Rate Analysis
Sounds
Visuals – misc. top-level controls i.e. manage storage and retrieval of preset data, transition to ‘live’ visuals, control overall size, hue, position etc.
Annotated table of preset values describing the mapping of heart rate information to the behaviour of the visuals, extracted from .json presets Describing how each layer responds to the various heart rate statistics, and the quality of response over time (i.e. ‘easing’, non-linear scaling etc.)
iPad visuals – Annotated Calibration Images and tables, Indicating how the visuals should look given specific layer-control messages i.e. diameter, hue, alpha etc. describing the idiosyncrasies of the visualisation code.

Table 2 – George Khut’s documentation strategy for “Distillery: Waveforming

 

Conclusions

For Khut, Distillery: Waveforming is foremost an experiential artwork and therefore his ideas about documentation focus on capturing its functionality and the aesthetics of the interaction. Khut sees the fundamental element of Distillery: Waveforming to be something other than the source code and the technical hardware: namely the mappings between breath and relaxation-mediated changes in heart rate and the appearance of the sounds and visuals, and how these mappings give form to the subject’s experience of interactions between their breath, heart rate and autonomic nervous system.

The modular Max patch programming and the presets in the .json file form, for the artist, the compositional heart of Distillery: Waveforming. This programming draws the visuals in response to the real time heart rate data: the key to the artwork. By further documenting the interactive principles independent from the current technology, drawing on approaches proposed in the Variable Media Questionnaire, Khut has developed reference documents that allow for the translation of the original preset data and calibration for future interpretations of the visualisation software.  In this way Khut can describe the artwork with greater clarity in a non-vernacular, opening up opportunities for the artwork to be recreated in alternate modes.

As an artwork in the QAGOMA collection, Distillery: Waveforming sets a precedent as the first prototype-artwork to be acquired. Technology-based digital artworks are prone to being superseded at a rapid pace and attempting to manage even the medium-term future for such artworks is perplexing. To gain the assistance of the artist at the time of acquisition is constructive and very beneficial, but to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource (Pagliarino 2015, p. 74). Although the Gallery maintains an interest and intention to preserve Distillery: Waveforming in its original developmental state, providing clear evidence of Khut’s ‘iterative’, evolving art practice, the archival resource provides scope to reinterpret the artwork at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended.

Through this process of defining the experience, the artist and the institution have collaboratively addressed their common and divergent interests in the future care of Distillery: Waveforming. These differing views have created an opportunity to better understand the artwork and its position as an asset within a state collection and a physical, historical link to an ongoing, evolving artistic practice. Khut’s continued interest in the preservation of Distillery: Waveforming and his participation in dialogues about this artwork and other iterations of the biofeedback project have provided the Gallery with an extraordinary reference and flexibility to manage and display the artwork long into the future.

 

 

Works Cited

Collin, JD and Perrin, V 2013, ‘Collecting Digital Art: Reflections and Paradoxes – Ten years’ experience at the Espace multimedia gantner’ in Serexhe, Berhnard(Ed.), Digital Art Conservation – Preservation of digital art theory and practice, Germany, ZKM Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe.

Cycling74, 2012, Max (version 6.0.8) computer software, Walnut, California, Accessed 22 September 2014.

Ippolito, Jon. 2003a, ‘Accomodating the Unpredictable’ in The Variable Media Approach: Permanence through change, Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York, and The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science & Technology, Montreal, pp. 46-53. Accessed 22 September 2014.

Ippoliti, Jon. 2003b, ‘Variable Media Network, Definition’ Accessed 22 September 2014.

iTunes 2014, ‘BrightHearts by Sensorium Health’ viewed 29 August 2014

Khut, George Poonkhin 2014, ‘On Distillery: Waveforming (2012)’ Born Digital and Cultural Heritage conference, Melbourne, Australia, 19-20 June 2014, viewed 29 August 2014

Khut, George Poonkhin 2014, personal communication, interview 5th September 2014.

Khut, George Poonkhin 2012, Distillery: Waveforming 2012 user’s manual (draft), in the possession of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.

Khut, George Poonkhin, Morrow, A & Watanabe, MY 2011, ‘The BrightHearts Project: A new approach to the management of procedure-related paediatric anxiety’, Preceding of OzCHI 2011: The Body InDesign.  Design, Culture & Interaction, The Australasian Computer Human Interaction conference, Canberra, Australia, 28-29 November 2011, pp. 17-21.

Khut, George Poonkhin  & Muller, L 2005, ‘Evolving creative practice: a reflection on working with audience experience in Cardiomorphologies’, in Lyndal Jones, Pauline Anastasious, , Rhonda Smithies, Karen Trist,  (Eds.), Vital Signs: creative practice and new media now, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Australia, RMIT Publishing.

Anne Laforet, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk,  2010, ‘Rock, paper, scissors and floppy disks’, in Annet Dekker (ed.), Archive 2020: Sustainable archiving of born digital cultural content, Virtueel Platform, viewed 4 February 2014, pp.25-36.

McDermott, J 2013, ‘Bright Hearts (2011)’, jmcd, viewed 4 September 2013, <http://www.jasonmcdermott.net/portfolio/bright-hearts>

Pagliarino, Amanda 2015, ‘Life beyond legacy: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming’, AICCM Bulletin, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 67-75.

Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, 2012, National New Media Award 2012 – George Poonkhin Khut 2012 NMA winner, QAGOMA, viewed 15 October 2014.

 

Bios

Amanda PAGLIARINO is Head of Conservation at the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.  Since 2003 she has worked on the conservation of audiovisual and electronic artworks in the Gallery’s collection. Amanda received a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the Queensland University of Technology in 1991 and a Bachelor of Applied Science, Conservation of Cultural Material from the University of Canberra in 1995.

George Poonkhin Khut is an artist and interaction-designer working across the fields of electronic art, interaction design and arts-in-health. He lectures in art and interaction design at UNSW Art & Design (University of New South Wales, Faculty of Art  & Design) in Sydney, Australia. Khut’s body-focussed interactive and participatory artworks use bio-sensing technologies to re-frame experiences of embodiment, health and subjectivity. In addition to presenting his works in galleries and museums, George has been developing interactive and participatory art with exhibitions and research projects in hospitals, starting with “The Heart Library Project” at St. Vincent’s Public Hospital in 2009, and more recently with the “BrightHearts” research project – a collaboration with Dr Angie Morrow, Staff Specialist in Brain Injury at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Kids Rehab, that is evaluating the efficacy of his interactive artworks as tools for helping to reduce the pain and anxiety experienced by children during painful and anxiety-provoking procedures.

 

There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika M. Megler

Abstract: In 1981, two Melbourne University students were hired part-time to write a text adventure game. The result was the game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), based on Tolkien’s book (Tolkien), which became one of the most successful text adventure games ever. The Hobbit was innovative in its use of non-deterministic gameplay, a full-sentence parser, the addition of graphics to a text adventure game and finally “emergent characters” – characters exhibiting apparent intelligence arising out of simple behaviours and actions – with whom the player had to interact in order to “solve” some of the game’s puzzles. This paper is a case history of developing The Hobbit, and covers the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique.

 

Fig.1 - C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Figure 1.  C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Introduction

This paper is a case history of the development of the text adventure game, The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981). The game was a translation of Tolkien’s novel of the same name (Tolkien) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market.

As co-developer of The Hobbit, I offer my recollections of the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made the game unique. Those ideas included the use of non-deterministic gameplay – the game played differently every time and sometimes could not be completed due to key characters being killed early in the game – very different to other games, which had only a single path through the game and responded the same way each time they were played. The Hobbit contained a full-sentence parser that understood a subset of natural language, dubbed Inglish, as compared to the simple “verb noun” constructions accepted by other adventure games of the time. There were graphic renditions of some of the game locations, another groundbreaking addition to a text adventure game. And finally, “emergent characters” – non-player characters exhibiting apparent personalities and intelligence – with whom the player had to interact in order to solve some of the game’s puzzles. In combination, these features led to a game experience that transformed the industry.

Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. I compare the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time. Lastly, I discuss the legacy and recent revival of interest in the game.

“Let us not follow where the path may lead.
Let us go instead where there is no path,
And leave a trail.”

– Japanese Proverb

The Tenor of the Times 

It was early 1981. I was a Bachelor of Science student at Melbourne University, majoring in Computer Science (CS) and just starting my last year. These were the early days of Computer Science education, and the curricula required today for undergraduate Computer Science students had not yet been developed. In our classes we were studying topics like sort algorithms and data structures and operating systems such as BSD Unix. Another class focused on calculating rounding and truncation errors occurring as a result of a series of digital calculations. We were taught software development using a systems analysis method called HIPO[1] – Hierarchical Input-Process-Output, the best practice in structured programming – and that documenting our code was a good practice. Object-oriented programming was still in the future.

During our first couple of years in the CS program, programming projects were written using “mark sense cards”, which we marked up with pencils and fed into card readers after waiting in a long queue of students – sometimes for an hour or two to get a single run. You had to get the program running within a certain number of runs or the card reader would redistribute the lead across the cards, making them illegible.

By the time we reached the last year of the Bachelor’s degree, in our CS classes we were actually allowed to log onto a Unix machine in the lab and work there, if we could get access to a terminal (which often meant waiting for hours, or booking a timeslot, or waiting till late in the evening). We programmed in Pascal, Fortran, Assembler, C (our favorite), and Lisp. Our favorite editor was, universally, Vi. I remember programming a PDP8 in Assembler to run a toy train around a set of tracks, switching the tracks as instructed; we hand-assembled the program, typed it in and debugged it using a hexadecimal keypad.

By this time I’d built my own PC, from a project in an electronics hobbyist magazine. I’d purchased the mother board, which came as a peg-board with a printed circuit on it, minus any components or cross-wiring. I would go to the electronics parts store with my list of chips, resistors, capacitors and diodes, and solder for my soldering iron.  In the store they’d say, “tell your boyfriend we don’t have these” – it was not even considered possible that I might be the person purchasing them. The system had a small number of bytes – around 128 bytes, I believe (that is not a misprint) – of free memory, and used a black and white TV as a monitor. For this system we wrote programs out on paper in a simple Assembler, hand-assembled it and typed it in using a hexadecimal keypad. There was no save function, so whenever the system restarted we had to re-type in the program. It was quite impressive to see the programs we could develop in that amount of space.

I was used to being one of around 2-4 women in my university classes, whether it was a smaller class of 30 students or one of the massive Physics classes holding perhaps two or three hundred. Sexism was alive and kicking. The norm for women – for most of the fellow students at my all-girl high school, MacRobertson – was to become secretaries or nurses (although my closest friend for many of those years became a lawyer, traveling to the ‘Stans to negotiate for oil companies, and is now chairman of the board). One fellow student (luckily, I don’t remember who) gave me the ultimate compliment: “you’re bright, for a girl!” In self-defense, I partnered with another woman – Kerryn – for any pair projects. Whenever we had 4-person group projects we joined with another frequent pair, Phil Mitchell and Ray, who were amongst the few men willing to partner with us; these group experiences later led to me recruiting the other three to work at Melbourne House.

My game-playing experience was very limited. There was a Space Invaders arcade game in the lobby of the student union at the university that I sometimes played. For a while there was a game of Pong there, too. The Unix system featured an adventure game we called AdventureColossal Cave, also often referred to as Classic Adventure (CRL, 1976). In our last year I played it obsessively for some time, mapping out the “maze of twisty little passages”, until I had made it to through the game once. At that point it instantly lost interest for me, and I don’t believe I ever played it again. I was not aware of any other computer games.

State-of-the-art PC games were a very new thing – PCs were a very new thing – and at the time were written in Interpretive Basic by hobbyists. Sometimes the games were printed in magazines, taking maybe a page or two at most, and you could type them into any computer that had a Basic interpreter and play them. The code was generally written as a long list of if-then-else statements, and every action and the words to invoke that action was hard-coded. The game-play was pre-determined and static. Even if you purchased the game and loaded it (from the radio-cassette that it was shipped on), you could generally solve the puzzles by reading the code. The rare games that were shipped as compiled Basic could still be solved by dumping memory and reading the messages from the dump.

Getting the Job

I was working early Sunday mornings as a part-time computer operator, but wanted a job with more flexibility. On a notice board I found a small advertisement looking for students to do some programming, and called. I met Alfred (Fred) Milgrom, who had recently started a company he called “Melbourne House”, and he hired me on the spot to write a game for him. Fred was a bit of a visionary in thinking that hiring students with Computer Science background could perhaps do a better job than the general state-of-the-art of self-taught hobbyists.

Fred’s specifications to me were: “Write the best adventure game ever.” Period.

I told Phil Mitchell about the job, as I thought he had the right skills. I brought him along to talk to Fred, who hired him to work on the game with me. Kerryn and Ray joined us later that year to write short games in Basic for publication in the books that Melbourne House was publishing. These books featured a series of games, most of them about a page or two in length. The books were often sold along with a radio-cassette from which you could load the game rather than having to type it in yourself. Ray only stayed briefly, but Kerryn I think stayed for most of the year, and wrote many games. She’d sit at the keyboard and chuckle as she developed a new idea or played a game she’d just written.

Software Design, Cro-Magnon Style

So, what would “the best adventure game ever” look like? I started with the only adventure game I’d ever played: Classic Adventure. What did I not like about it? Well, once I’d figured out the map and solved the puzzles, I was instantly bored. It played the same way every time. Each Non-Player Character (NPC) was tied to a single location, and always did the same thing. Lastly, you had to figure out exactly the incantation the game expected; if the game expected “kill troll”, then any other command – “attack the troll”, for example – would get an error message. You could spend a long time trying to figure out what command the game developer intended you to issue; as a result, most adventure games tended to have the same actions, paired with the same vocabulary.

Phil and I split the game cleanly down the middle, with clearly defined interfaces between the two halves. I took what today we would call the game engine, physics engine and data structures (although those terms did not exist then). Phil took the interface and language portion. I don’t remember who had the original idea of a much more developed language than the standard “kill troll” style of language used by other text adventures of the time; my thinking stopped at the level of having synonyms available for the commands. I had almost no involvement in the parser; I remember overhearing conversations between Fred and Phil as the complexity of what they were aiming at increased. For a time, Stuart Richie was brought in to provide language expertise. However, his thinking was not well suited to what was possible to develop in Assembler in the space and time available, so, according to what Phil told me at the time, none of his design was used – although I suspect that being exposed to his thinking helped Phil crystallize what eventually became Inglish. No matter what the user entered – “take the sharp sword and excitedly hack at the evil troll”, say, he’d convert it to a simple (action, target) pair to hand off to me: “kill troll”, or perhaps, “kill troll with sword”.  Compound sentences would become a sequence of actions, so “take the hammer and hit Gandalf with it” would come to me as two actions: “pick up hammer”, followed by a next turn of “hit Gandalf with hammer”.

I put together the overall design for a game that would remove the non-language-related limitations within a couple of hours on my first day on the job. I knew I wanted to use generalized, abstracted data structures, with general routines that processed that structure and with exits for “special cases”, rather than the usual practice of the time of hard-coding the game-play.  My intent was that you could develop a new game by replacing the content of the data structures and the custom routines – a “game engine” concept I did not hear described until decades later. We even talked about developing a “game editor” that would allow gamers to develop their own adventure games by entering items into the data structures via an interface, but I believe it was never developed. I very early on decided that I wanted randomness to be a key feature of the game – recognizing that that meant the game could not always be solved, and accepting that constraint.

I envisaged three data structures to be used to support the game: a location database, a database of objects and a database of “characters”. The location “database” (actually, just a collection of records with a given structure) was pretty straightforward, containing a description of the location and, for each direction, a pointer to the location reached. There could also be an override routine to be called when going in a direction. The override allowed features or game problems to be added to the game map: for example, a door of limited size (so you could not pass through it while carrying too many items) or a trap to be navigated once specific constraints had been met. There’s a location (the Goblin’s Dungeon) that uses this mechanism to create a dynamic map, rather than having fixed connections to other locations: for each direction, an override routine is called that randomly picks a “next location” for the character to arrive in from a given list of possible locations. Another innovation in the location database occurred when Phil added pictures to specific locations, and drew them when the player entered one of those locations. Rather than representing the entire map of the Middle Earth in the game (as I might do today), I simplified it into a set of individual locations where noteworthy events occurred in the story, and represented those as a linked set of locations, with the links oriented in the directions as laid out on the map. So, for example, “go North” from one location would immediately take you to the next location North in the game where a significant event occurred. I did not then have a notion of variable travel time based on distance between the two locations.

Similarly, I conceived of an object database with a set of abstract characteristics and possible overrides, rather than hard-coding a list of possible player interactions with specific objects as was done in other games. Each object had characteristics and constraints that allowed me treat them generically: weight, size, and so on – in effect, a simple (by today’s standards) physics engine. An object could have the capability to act as a container, and a container could be transparent or opaque; a transparent container’s contents could be seen without having to open it first. There were generic routines that could be applied to all objects: for example, any object could be picked up by something bigger and stronger than it, or put into a bigger container (if there was enough room left in it). Some routines could be applied to any object that matched some set of characteristics; an object could also have a list of “special” routines associated with it that overrode the general routines. There was a general “turn on” routine that applied to lamps, for example, that could also be overridden for a magic lamp by a different, more complex “turn on” routine. I went through the book noting where objects were used to further the plot (swords, lamps, and most obviously, the ring), then added those objects to the game, with appropriate generic characteristics and actions (weight, the ability for lamps to be turned on) and special routines as needed (for example, the ring’s ability to make the wearer invisible).

Each non-player character (NPC) was also an object that began in an “alive” state, but could, due to events in the game, stop being alive – which allowed a player to, for example, use a dead dwarf as a weapon, in the absence of any other weapon). However, the physics engine caused “kill troll with sword” to inflict more damage than “kill troll with (dead) dwarf”.

In addition to regular object characteristics, each NPC had a “character”, stored in the third database. I conceived of an NPC’s character as being a set of actions that the NPC might perform, a sequence in which they generally performed them and a frequency of repetition. The individual actions were simple and were generally the same actions that a player could do (run in a given direction, attack another character, and so on); but again, these routines could be overridden for a specific character. The sequence could be fixed or flexible: an action could branch to a different part of the sequence and continue from there, or even jump to a random location in the sequence. The apparent complexity of the character comes from the length and flexibility of its action sequence; the character “emerges” as a result. For example, Gandalf’s short attention span and kleptomania were represented by a sequence like: “[go] <random direction>. [Pick up] <random object> [Say, “what’s this?”]. [Go] <random direction>. [Put down] <random object>.”

The division between inanimate object and NPC was left intentionally a little blurry, giving extra flexibility. For example, the object overrides could also be used to modify character behaviour. I actually coded an override where, if the player typed “turn on the angry dwarf”, he turned into a “randy dwarf” and followed the player around propositioning him.  If he was later turned off, he’d return to being the angry dwarf and start trying to kill any live character. Fred and Phil made me take that routine out.

In order to develop each character, I went through the book and, for each character, tried to identify common sequences of behavior that I could represent through a sequence of actions that would capture the “texture” of that character. Some characters were easy; for a troll, “{If no alive object in current location} [go] <random direction> {else} [kill] <random object with status ‘alive’>” was pretty much the whole list. Others were harder, such as characterizing Thorin; and yes, I did write the now-classic phrase, “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” (I hereby apologize for how frequently he said that; short character-action list, you see.) An action could invoke a general routine which was the same for all NPCs – like, choose a random direction and run, or choose a live object in the location and kill it; or, it could be an action specific only to this NPC, as with Thorin’s persistent singing (as seen in Figure 2). For Gandalf, the generic “pick up” routine was used under the covers, but overridden for Gandalf to utter “what’s this”.

Figure 1. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Figure 2. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Sometimes an alternate behaviour list could be chosen based on events, as can be seen in Figure 2. For example, the friendly dwarf would become violent once he’d been attacked (or picked up). For a while, we had terrible trouble with all the NPCs showing up in one location and then killing each other before the player had the chance to work his way through the game, before I got the character profiles better adjusted. Some character would attack another, and once a battle was in progress any (otherwise friendly) character entering that location would be attacked and end up joining in. The same mechanism was used to allow the player to request longer-running actions from NPCs, such as asking a character to follow you when you needed them to help solve a puzzle in a (sometimes far) different location from where they were when you found them. In general the NPCs were programmed to interact with “another”, and did not differentiate whether the “other” was the player or not unless there was a game-related reason for doing so. The NPCs exhibited “emergent behaviour”; they just “played” the game themselves according to their character profile, including interacting with each other. In essence, the NPCs would do to each other almost anything that they could do to or with the player.

Phil programmed the interface to accept input from the player, and after each turn he would hand control to the NPC system, which would allow each (remaining) alive character to take a turn, as can be seen in Figures 2 and 3. For the time, this design was revolutionary; the model then was to have a single, non-mobile NPC in a single location, with only a couple of specific actions that were invoked once the player entered that location, and behaving the same way each time you played the game. Even in the arcade games of the time, we were able to identify that each object the player interacted with behaved the same way each time, and they did not interact with each other at all.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

At the beginning of the game, we would generate, for each NPC, a random starting point in that NPC’s action list, giving the game much of its random nature. This combination of factors led to the “emergent characters”; or, seen another way, “a bunch of other characters just smart enough to be profoundly, infuriatingly stupid” (Maher).

I quickly transitioned to the concept of the player merely being another character, with a self-generated action list. At some point I experienced the emergent nature of the characters while trying to debug and was joking about the fact that the characters could play the game without the player being there; that discussion led naturally to the famous “time passes” function, where, if the player took too long in taking his next action (or, chose to “wait”, as in Figure 1), the characters would each take another turn. This feature, which Melbourne House trademarked as
“Animaction” (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.), was another innovation not seen in prior text adventures, where game-play depended wholly on the player’s actions. (It is also noteworthy how many of the game’s innovations began as jokes. I now believe this to be true of much innovation; certainly it has been, for the innovations I’ve been involved in.)

The next, seemingly obvious step to me was to allow – or even require – the player to ask the NPCs to perform certain tasks for him (as seen in Figure 4), and to set up puzzles that required this kind of interaction in order to solve them. This addition added another layer of complexity to the game. As commented by one fan, “As most veteran Hobbit players know, a good way to avoid starvation in the game is to issue the command “CARRY ELROND” whilst in Rivendell. In the game Elrond is a caterer whose primary function is to give you lunch and if you carry him then he will continue to supply you with food throughout the game.”[2] Another had a less tolerant view: “Sometimes they do what you ask, but sometimes they’re feeling petulant. Perhaps the seminal Hobbit moment comes when you scream at Brand to kill the dragon that’s about to engulf you both in flames, and he answers, “No.” After spending some time with this collection of half-wits, even the most patient player is guaranteed to start poking at them with her sword at some point.”[3]

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

The non-determinism of the overall game meant that it was not, in general, possible to write down a solution to the game. There were specific puzzles in the game, however, and solutions to these puzzles could be written down and shared. However, people also found other ways to solve them than I’d anticipated. For example: “A friend of mine has discovered that you can get and carry both Elrond and Bard. Carrying Elrond with you can by quite useful as he continuously distributes free lunches. And, to be honest, carrying Bard is the only way I’ve found of getting him to the Lonely Mountain. There must be a better way.” (“Letters: Gollum’s Riddle”) As commented by a retrospective, “And actually, therein sort of lies the secret to enjoying the game, and the root of its appeal in its time. It can be kind of fascinating to run around these stage sets with all of these other crazy characters just to see what can happen — and what you can make happen.” (Maher)

Inglish

While I worked on the game, Phil designed, developed and wrote the language interpreter, later dubbed Inglish. I had little interest in linguistics, so I generally tuned out the long discussions that Fred and Phil had about it – and was supported in doing so by the encapsulation and simple interface between the two “halves” of the game, which prevented me needing to know any more.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Every word was stored in the dictionary, and since only 5 bits are used to represent the English alphabet in lower-case ASCII, the other 3 bits were used by Phil to encode other information about speech parts (verb, adjective, adverb, noun), valid word usages, what pattern to use when pluralizing, and so on. I’ve seen screen images from versions of the game in other languages (e.g., Figure 5), but I do not know how the translations were done or how the design worked with these other languages.

 

Phil translated player commands into simple “verb object” commands to hand to me, with some allowed variations to allow for different action results. For example, I seem to remember that “viciously kill” would launch a more fierce attack, and use up more strength as a result, than just “kill”. Rather than a set of hard-coded messages (as was the norm), we generated the messages “on the fly” from the dictionary and a set of sentence templates. At the end of some action routine, I would have a pointer to a message template for that action. The template would contain indicators for where the variable parts of the message should be placed. I would then pass the message, the subject and object to the language engine. The engine would then generate the message, using, once again, spare bits for further customization.  To take a simple example, “Gandalf gives the curious map to you” used the same template as, say, “Thorin gives the axe to the angry dwarf”.

We were so limited by memory that we would adjust the size of the dictionary to fit the game into the desired memory size; so the number of synonyms available would sometimes decrease if a bug fix required more lines of code. It was a constant trade-off between game functionality and language richness. As a result of all the encoding, dumping memory – a common method of solving puzzles in other text adventures – provided no information for The Hobbit.

Software Development, Cro-Magnon-Style

Our initial development environment was a Dick Smith TRS80 look-alike, with 5 inch floppy drives. Initially I believe we used a 16k machine, then a 32k, and towards the end a 48k or perhaps 64k machine. Our target machine for the game was initially a 32k TRS80. During development, the Spectrum 64 was announced, and that became our new target. Game storage was on a cassette tape, played on a regular radio-cassette player. As the other systems became available we continued using the TRS80 platform as the development environment, and Phil took on the question of how to ports the game to other platforms.

We had a choice of two languages to use for development: Basic, or Assembler. We chose Assembler as we felt the added power offset the added difficulty in using the language.

During initial development, the only development tool available was a simple Notepad-like text editor, and the majority of code was written that way. Later I believe a Vi-like editor became available; even later, I have faint memories of a very early IDE that allowed us to edit, assemble the code and step through it (but that also inserted its own bugs from time to time).

We initially worked with the system’s existing random number generator, but realized that its pseudo-random nature made the game play the same way each time – against what I hoped to achieve. Phil then spent some time writing a “true” random number generator, experimenting with many sources of seed values before he was successful. He tried using the contents of various registers, but discovered that these were often the same values each time. He tried using the time, but the TRS80 did not have a built-in battery or time, and most people did not set the time each time they started the system – so again, if someone turned the machine on and loaded the game, we would get the same results each time. After some experimentation he finally succeeded, and the game – for better or worse, and sometimes for both – became truly random.

Debugging was a nightmare. Firstly, we were debugging machine code, initially without the advantage of an IDE; we ran the program, and when it crashed we tried to read the memory dumps. In Assembler, especially when pushing the memory limit of the system, the Basic programmer’s technique of inserting “print” statements to find out what is happening is not available. We had characters interacting with each other in distant parts of the game, and only actions in the current location were printed on the game player’s console. In one of several cases where a game feature was originally developed for other reasons, we initially wrote the “save” mechanism to help us debug parts of the game without having to start from the beginning each time. It then became part of the delivered version, allowing players to take advantage of the same function.

At some point, the idea of adding graphics came up, I think from Phil. Fred commissioned Kent Rees to draw the pictures, and Phil figured out how to draw them on the various systems; I do know that he adapted the pictures from the originals Kent provided in order to make them easier to draw. The first version of his code always drew the picture when you entered a location that had one; however, it was so slow and annoyed us (me) so much that Phil quickly added a switch to turn them off.

Sidelines

In between coding The Hobbit, we occasionally took time to work on other games. Fred would give us $20 to go and play arcade games, sometimes as often as each week, to see what other folk were doing and what the state of the art was in that industry. Someone in our group of four wrote a version of Pac-Man. We spent hours with one person playing Pac-Man, trying to get up to higher levels in the game, while the others leant over the arcade machine trying to figure out the algorithms that caused prizes to appear and how the behaviour changed across the game levels. We didn’t see it as piracy, as arcade games and home computers were at that time seen as being completely unrelated industries – it was more in the spirit of gaining ideas from another industry for application into ours.

Another game that we wrote was Penetrator (Melbourne House, 1981). Phil was the clear lead on that game while I worked on some pieces of it, and I think Kerryn may have worked on it a bit too.  It was a copy of the arcade game Scramble (Konami, 1981). Because of the speed (or lack thereof) of the processors at the time, we had to ensure that each separate path through the game took the same amount of time; even a difference of one “tstate” (processor state) between one path of an “if-then-else” to another would interfere with smooth motion, so we spent significant time calculating (by hand) the time taken by each path and choosing different Assembler instructions that would compensate for the differences (and given that “NO-op” took 2 tstates, it was not always easy). Another difficulty was getting the radars to turn smoothly, while handling the variable number of other activities taking place in the game. It took forever to get it “right”.

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

At the beginning we drew the screen bitmaps for all the landscapes on graph paper and then hand-calculated the hexadecimal representations of each byte for the screen buffer, but that became so tedious so quickly that Phil wrote an editor that we could use to create the landscapes. In the end the landscape editor was packaged with the game, as a feature.

Another “pressing” issue for shooter games of the time was that of keyboard debounce. At the time a computer keyboard consisted of an electrical grid, and when a key was pressed the corresponding horizontal and vertical lines would register a “high”. You checked the grid at regular intervals, and if any lines were registering high you used a map of the keyboard layout to identify the key that had been pressed. However, you had to stall for just the right amount of time before re-reading the keyboard; if you waited too long, the game seemed unresponsive, but if you read too quickly, you would read several key presses for each key press that the player intended. While it was possible to use the drivers that came with the keyboard, they did not respond quickly enough to use for interactive games. “Getting it right” was a tedious matter of spending hours fiddling with timings and testing.

Perhaps A Little Too Random

In addition to all the other randomness it exhibited, The Hobbit was also known to crash seemingly randomly. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, The Hobbit was a tough game to test. It was a much bigger game than others of the time. Unlike the other games, it was approximately 40k of hand-coded Assembler[4], as opposed to the commonly used interpreted Basic (a few more advanced games were shipped in compiled Basic). It was written without the benefit of formalized testing practices or automated test suites. The assembly and linking programs we used were also relatively new, and during development, we would find bugs in them. I remember spending hours debugging one time only to discover that the assembler had optimized away a necessary register increment, causing an infinite loop; I had a lot of trouble trying to invent a different coding sequence that prevented the assembler from removing the required increment. Altogether, I took away lessons about not letting your application get too far ahead of the ability of your infrastructure to support it.

Secondly, the game was non-deterministic; it was different every time it was played. It exhibited its own manifestation of chaos theory: small changes in starting conditions (initial game settings, all generated by the random number generator) would lead to large differences in how the game proceeded. Due to the “emergent characters”, we constantly had NPCs interacting in ways that had never been explicitly programmed and tested, or even envisioned. The game could crash because of something that happened in another location that was not visible to the player or to person testing the game, and we might never be able to identify or recreate the sequence of actions that led to it.

It was possible to have an instance of the game that was insoluble, if a key character required to solve a specific puzzle did not survive until needed (often due to having run into a dwarf on the rampage); this was a constraint I was happy to accept, though it frustrated some players. The ability to tell the NPCs what to do also meant that people told them things to do that we hadn’t accounted for. The very generality of the game engine – the physics, the language engine, and the ability for the player to tell characters what to do – led players to interact with the game in ways I’d never thought of, and that were certainly never tested. In some cases, they were things I didn’t realize the game was capable of.

Epilogue

The Hobbit was released in 1982 in Australia and the U.K. Figure 7 shows a typical packaging. It was an instant hit; amongst other awards, it won the Golden Joystick Award for Strategy Game of the Year in 1983, and came second for Best Game of the Year, after Jet-Pac. Penetrator came second in the Golden Joystick Best Arcade Game category, and Melbourne House came second for their Best Software House of the Year, after Jet-Pac’s publishers (“Golden Joystick Awards”). A couple of revisions were published with some improvements, including better graphics. Due to licensing issues it was some time before a U.S. release followed. The book was still covered by copyright and so the right to release had to be negotiated with the copyright holders, which were different in each country. The U.S. copyright holder had other plans for a future game. As a result, future book-based game ideas specifically chose books (such as Sherlock Holmes) that were no longer covered by copyright.

Figure 7. Game release package.

Figure 7. The Hobbit. Game release package.

At the end of 1981, I finished my Bachelor’s degree. We were beginning to discuss using the Sherlock Holmes mysteries as a next games project; I was not sure that the adventure game engine I’d developed was a good fit for the Sherlock style of puzzle solving, although there were definitely aspects that would translate across. However, I was also ready to start something new after a year of coding and debugging in Assembler. I’d proved that my ideas could work, and believed that the result Phil and I had produced was the desired one – an adventure game that solved all my frustrations with Classic Adventure, and in my mind (if not yet in other people’s) met Fred’s target of “the best adventure game ever”.

I interviewed with several major IT vendors, and took a job at IBM, as did Ray. Kerryn took a job in a mining company in Western Australia. Phil stayed on at Melbourne House (later Beam Software), the only member of our university programming team to continue on in the games industry. We eventually all lost touch.

During this time, I was unaware that the game had become a worldwide hit. Immersed in my new career, I lost touch with the nascent games industry. At IBM, I started at the same level as other graduates who had no experience with computers or programming; developing a game in Assembler was not considered professional or relevant experience. Initially I became an expert in the VM operating system (the inspiration and progenitor for VMWare, I’ve heard), which I still admire for the vision, simplicity and coherence of its design, before moving into other technical and consulting position. In late 1991 I left Australia to travel the world. I eventually stopped in Portland, Oregon, with a plan to return to Australia after 2 years – a plan that has been much delayed.

A 3-year stint in a global Digital Media business growth role for IBM U.S. in the early 2000’s brought me back in contact with games developers just as the movie and games industries were moving from proprietary to open-standards based hardware and infrastructure. The differences in development environments, with large teams and sophisticated supporting graphics and physics packages, brought home to me how far the games industry had come. But while I appreciate the physics engines and the quality of graphics that today can fool the eye into believing they are real, the basis of a good game has not changed: simple, compelling ideas still captivate and enchant people, as can be seen in the success of, for example, Angry Birds. I also believe that the constraints of limitations – such as small memories and slow processors – can lead to a level of innovation that less limited resources does not.

And Back Again

As the Internet era developed, I started receiving letters from fans of The Hobbit. The first person I recall tracking me down emailed me with an interview request for his Italian adventure fan-site in 2001, after what he said was a long, long search. The subsequent years made it easier to locate people on the Internet, and the emails became more frequent. At times I get an email a week from people telling me the impact the game had on the course of their lives.

In 2006, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) held an exhibition entitled “Hits of the 80s: Aussie games that rocked the world” (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), featuring The Hobbit. It felt a little like having a museum retrospective while still alive: a moment of truth of how much things have changed, and at the same time how little. The games lab curator, Helen Stuckey, has since written a research paper about the challenge of collecting and exhibiting videogames for a museum audience, using The Hobbit as an example (Stuckey).

In late 2009 I took an education leave of absence from IBM US to study for a Masters/PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University. (IBM and I have since parted company.) When I arrived one of the PhD students, who had played The Hobbit in Mexico as a boy, recognized my name and asked me to present on it. While searching the Internet for graphics for the presentation, I discovered screen shots in many different languages and only then began to realize the worldwide distribution and impact the game had had. Being in a degree program while describing work I’d done during my previous university degree decades before caused many conflicting emotions. I was also amazed at the attendance and interest from the faculty and other students.

In 2012, the 30-year anniversary of the release, several Internet sites and magazines published retrospectives; a couple contacted me for interviews, while others worked solely from published sources. The same year I was contacted by a fan who had been inspired by a bug (“this room is too full for you to enter”) to spend time over the intervening decades in reverse-engineering the machine code into a “game debugger” of the kind I wish we’d had when we originally developed it: Wilderland (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”). It runs the original game code in a Spectrum emulator, while displaying the position and state of objects and NPCs throughout the game. His eventual conclusion was that the location is left over from testing (and I even have a very vague memory of that testing). That a game I spent a year writing part-time could cause such extended devotion is humbling.

In retrospect, I think we came far closer to Fred’s goal of “the best adventure game ever” than we ever imagined we would. The game sold in many countries over many years, and by the late 1980’s had sold over a million copies (DeMaria) – vastly outselling most other games of the time. During one interview, the interviewer told me that in his opinion, The Hobbit transformed the genre of text adventure games, and that it was the last major development of the genre: later games merely refined the advances made. Certainly Beam Software’s games after The Hobbit did not repeat its success.

While many of the publications, particularly at the time of release, focused on the Inglish parser, it is the characters and the richness of the gameplay that most people that contact me focus on. I believe that just as the game would have been less rich without Inglish, putting the Inglish parser on any other adventure game of the time would in no way have resembled the experience of playing The Hobbit, nor would it have had the same impact on the industry or on individuals.

In 2013, the Internet Archive added The Hobbit to its Historical Software Collection[5] – which, in keeping with many other Hobbit-related events, I discovered via a colleague’s email. Late that year, ACMI contacted me to invite me to join the upcoming Play It Again project[6], a game history and preservation project focused on ANZ-written digital games in the 1980s. That contact led to this paper.

As I complete this retrospective – and my PhD – I was again struck again by the power a few simple ideas can have, especially when combined with each other. It’s my favorite form of innovation. In the words of one fan, written 30 years after the game’s release, “I can see what Megler was striving toward: a truly living, dynamic story where anything can happen and where you have to deal with circumstances as they come, on the fly. It’s a staggeringly ambitious, visionary thing to be attempting.” (Maher) A game that’s a fitting metaphor for life.

Disclaimer

This paper is written about events 35 years ago, as accurately as I can remember. With that gap in time, necessarily some errors will have crept in; I take full responsibility for them.

 

 

References

Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. The Hobbit: Guide to Middle-Earth. 1985.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image. “Hits of the 80s: Aussie Games That Rocked the World.” N.p., May 2007. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Crowther, Will. Colossal Cave. CRL, 1976. Print.

DeMaria, Rusel Wilson, Johnny L. High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Berkeley, Cal.: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002. Print.

Golden Joystick Awards. Computer and Video Games Mar. 1984 : 15. Print.

Letters: Gollum’s Riddle. Micro Adventurer Mar. 1984 : 5. Print.

Maher, Jimmy. “The Hobbit.The Digital Antiquarian. N.p., Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Mitchell, Phil, and Veronika Megler. Penetrator. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0003649>.

—. The Hobbit. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hobbit_%28video_game%29>.

Stuckey, Helen. “Exhibiting The Hobbit: A Tale of Memories and Microcomputers.” History of Games International Conference Proceedings. Ed. Carl Therrien, Henry Lowood, and Martin Picard. Montreal: Kinephanos, 2014. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again,. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Print.

Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment. N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

 

 

Notes:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIPO

[2] http://solearther.tumblr.com/post/38456362341/thorin-sits-down-and-starts-singing-about-gold

[3] http://www.filfre.net/2012/11/the-hobbit/

[4] An analysis by the Wilderland project (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”) shows the following code breakdown: game engine and game, 36%; text-engine for input and output, the dictionary, the graphics-engine, and the parser 22%, graphics data 25%; character set (3%), buffers (8%), and 6% as yet unidentified.

[5] https://archive.org/details/The_Hobbit_v1.0_1982_Melbourne_House

[6] https://www.acmi.net.au/collections-research/research-projects/play-it-again/

 

Bio

Veronika M. Megler now works for Amazon Web Services in the U.S. as a Senior Consultant in Big Data and Analytics. She recently completed her PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University, working with Dr. David Maier in the emerging field of “Smarter Planet” and big data. Her dissertation research enables Information-Retrieval-style search over scientific data archives. Prior to her PhD, she helped clients of IBM U.S. and Australia adopt a wide variety of emerging technologies. She has published more than 20 industry technical papers and 10 research papers on applications of emerging technologies to industry problems, and holds two patents, including one on her dissertation research. Her interests include applications of emerging technologies, big data and analytics, scientific information management and spatio-temporal data. Ms. Megler was in the last year of her B.Sc. studies at Melbourne University when she co-wrote The Hobbit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at vmegler@gmail.com.

It Is What It is, Not What It Was – Henry Lowood

Abstract: The preservation of digital media in the context of heritage work is both seductive and daunting. The potential replication of human experiences afforded by computation and realised in virtual environments is the seductive part. The work involved in realising this potential is the daunting side of digital collection, curation, and preservation. In this lecture, I will consider two questions. First, Is the lure of perfect capture of data or the reconstruction of “authentic” experiences of historical software an attainable goal? And if not, how might reconsidering the project as moments of enacting rather than re-enacting provide a different impetus for making born digital heritage?

Keynote address originally delivered at the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference, Melbourne, 19 June 2014

Let’s begin with a question. When did libraries, archives, and museums begin to think about software history collections? The answer: In the late 1970s. The Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) and the History of Computing Committee of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), soon to be a sponsor of CBI, were both founded in 1978. The AFIPS committee produced a brochure called “Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” Distributed at the National Computer Conference in 1979, it is the earliest statement I have found about preserving software history. It says,

If we are to fully understand the process of computer and computing developments as well as the end results, it is imperative that the following material be preserved: correspondence; working papers; unpublished reports; obsolete manuals; key program listings used to debug and improve important software; hardware and componentry engineering drawings; financial records; and associated documents and artifacts. (“Preserving …” 4)

Mostly paper records. The recommendations say nothing about data files or executable software, only nodding to the museum value of hardware artefacts for “esthetic and sentimental value.” The brochure says that artefacts provide “a true picture of the mind of the past, in the same way as the furnishings of a preserved or restored house provides a picture of past society.” One year later, CBI received its first significant donation of books and archival documents from George Glaser, a former president of AFIPS. Into the 1980s history of computing collections meant documentation: archival records, publications, ephemera and oral histories.

Software preservation trailed documentation and historical projects by a good two decades. The exception was David Bearman, who left the Smithsonian in 1986 to create a company called Archives & Museum Informatics (AHI). He began publishing the Archival Informatics Newsletter in 1987 (later called Archives & Museum Informatics). As one of its earliest projects, AHI drafted policies and procedures for a “Software Archives” at the Computer History Museum (CHM) then located in Boston. By the end of 1987, Bearman published the first important study of software archives under the title Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives & Museums. (Bearman, Collecting Software; see also Bearman, “What Are/Is Informatics?”)

In his report, Bearman alternated between frustration and inspiration. Based on a telephone survey of companies and institutions, he wrote that “the concept of collecting software for historical research purposes had not occurred to the archivists surveyed; perhaps, in part, because no one ever asks for such documentation!” (Bearman, Collecting Software 25-26.) He learned that nobody he surveyed was planning software archives. Undaunted, he produced a report that carefully considered software collecting as a multi-institutional endeavor, drafting collection policies and selection criteria, use cases, a rough “software thesaurus” to provide terms for organizing a software collection, and a variety of practices and staffing models. Should some institution accept the challenge, here were tools for the job.

Well, here we are, nearly thirty years later. We can say that software archives and digital repositories finally exist. We have made great progress in the last decade with respect to repository technology and collection development. Looking back to the efforts of the 1980s, one persistent issue raised as early as the AFIPS brochure in 1978 is the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software. This is an important issue. Indeed, it is today, nearly forty years later, still one of the key decision points for any effort to build research collections aiming to preserve digital heritage or serve historians of software. Another topic that goes back to Bearman’s report is a statement of use cases for software history. Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it? Answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history.

As we consider the potential roles to be played by software collections in libraries and museums, we immediately encounter vexing questions about how researchers of the future will use ancient software. Consider that using historical software now in order to experience it in 2014 and running that software in 2014 to learn what it was like when people operated it thirty years ago are two completely different use cases. This will still be true in 2050. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand its implications. An analogy might help. I am not just talking about the difference between watching “Gone with the Wind” at home on DVD versus watching it in a vintage movie house in a 35mm print – with or without a live orchestra. Rather I mean the difference between my experience in a vintage movie house today – when I can find one – and the historical experience of, say, my grandfather during the 1930s. My experience is what it is, not what his was. So much of this essay will deal with the complicated problem of enacting a contemporary experience to re-enact a historical experience and what it has to do with software preservation. I will consider three takes on this problem: the historian’s, the media archaeologist’s, and the re-enactor.

Take 1. The Historian

Take one. The historian. Historians enact the past by writing about it. In other words, historians tell stories. This is hardly a revelation. Without meaning to trivialize the point, I cannot resist pointing out that “story” is right there in “hi-story” or that the words for story and history are identical in several languages, including French and German. The connections between story-telling and historical narrative have long been a major theme in writing about the methods of history, that is, historiography. In recent decades, this topic has been mightily influenced by the work of Hayden White, author of the much-discussed Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 1973.

White’s main point about historians is that History is less about subject matter and source material and more about how historians write.

He tells us that historians do not simply arrange events culled from sources in correct chronological order. Such arrangements White calls Annals or Chronicles. The authors of these texts merely compile lists of events. The work of the historian begins with the ordering of these events in a different way. Hayden writes in The Content of the Form that in historical writing, “the events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence.” (White, Content of the Form 5) How do historians do this? They create narrative discourses out of sequential chronicles by making choices. These choices involve the form, effect and message of their stories. White puts choices about form, for example, into categories such as argument, ideology and emplotment. There is no need in this essay to review all of the details of every such choice. The important takeaway is that the result of these choices by historians is sense-making through the structure of story elements, use of literary tropes and emphasis placed on particular ideas. In a word, plots. White thus gives us the enactment of history as a form of narrative or emplotment that applies established literary forms such as comedy, satire, and epic.

In his book Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, White writes about the “events, persons, structures and processes of the past” that “it is not their pastness that makes them historical. They become historical only in the extent to which they are represented as subjects of a specifically historical kind of writing.” (White, Figural Realism 2.) It is easy to take away from these ideas that history is a kind of literature. Indeed, this is the most controversial interpretation of White’s historiography.

My purpose in bringing Hayden White to your attention is to insist that there is a place in game and software studies for this “historical kind of writing.” I mean writing that offers a narrative interpretation of something that happened in the past. Game history and software history need more historical writing that has a point beyond adding events to the chronicles of game development or putting down milestones of the history of the game industry. We are only just beginning to see good work that pushes game history forward into historical writing and produces ideas about how these historical narratives will contribute to allied works in fields such as the history of computing or the history of technology more generally.

Allow me one last point about Hayden White as a take on enactment. Clearly, history produces narratives that are human-made and human-readable. They involve assembling story elements and choosing forms. How then do such stories relate to actual historical events, people, and artifacts? Despite White’s fondness for literary tropes and plots, he insists that historical narrative is not about imaginary events. If historical methods are applied properly, the resulting narrative according to White is a “simulacrum.” He writes in his essay on “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” that history is a “mimesis of the story lived in some region of historical reality, and insofar as it is an accurate imitation, it is to be considered a truthful account thereof.” (White, “The Question of Narrative …” 3.) Let’s keep this idea of historical mimesis in mind as we move on to takes two and three.

Take 2. The Media Archaeologist

My second take is inspired by the German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst. As with Hayden White, my remarks will fall far short of a critical perspective on Ernst’s work. I am looking for what he says to me about historical software collections and the enactment of media history.

Hayden White put our attention on narrative; enacting the past is storytelling. Ernst explicitly opposes Media Archaeology to historical narrative. He agrees in Digital Memory and the Archive, that “Narrative is the medium of history.” By contrast, “the technological reproduction of the past … works without any human presence because evidence and authenticity are suddenly provided by the technological apparatus, no longer requiring a human witness and thus eliminating the irony (the insight into the relativity) of the subjective perspective.” (Ernst, Loc. 1053-1055.) Irony, it should be noted, is one of White’s favourite tropes for historical narrative.

White tells us that historical enactment is given to us as narrative mimesis, with its success given as the correspondence of history to some lived reality. Ernst counters by giving us enactment in the form of playback.

In an essay called “Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View,” Ernst plays with the notion that, “To tell as a transitive verb means ‘to count things’.” The contrast with White here relates to the difference in the German words erzählen (narrate) and zählen (count), but you also find it in English: recount and count. Ernst describes historians as recounters: “Modern historians … are obliged not just to order data as in antiquaries but also to propose models of relations between them, to interpret plausible connections between events.” (Ernst, Loc. 2652-2653) In another essay, aptly subtitled “Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” Ernst adds that mainstream histories of technology and mass media as well as their counter-histories are textual performances that follow “a chronological and narrative ordering of events.” He observes succinctly that, “It takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such limitations.” (Ernst, Loc. 1080-1084)

Where do we go with Ernst’s declaration in “Telling versus Counting,” that “There can be order without stories”? We go, of course, directly to the machines. For Ernst, media machines are transparent in their operation, an advantage denied to historians. We play back historical media on historical machines, and “all of a sudden, the historian’s desire to preserve the original sources of the past comes true at the sacrifice of the discursive.” We are in that moment directly in contact with the past.

In “Method and Machine”, Ernst offers the concept of “media irony” as a response to White’s trope of historical irony. He says,

Media irony (the awareness of the media as coproducers of cultural content, with the medium evidently part of the message) is a technological modification of Hayden White’s notion that “every discourse is always as much about discourse itself as it is about the objects that make up its subject matter. (Ernst, Loc. 1029-1032)

As opposed to recounting, counting in Ernst’s view has to do with the encoding and decoding of signals by media machines. Naturally, humans created these machines. This might be considered as another irony, because humans- have thereby “created a discontinuity with their own cultural regime.” We are in a realm that replaces narrative with playback as a form of direct access to a past defined by machine sequences rather than historical time. (Ernst, Loc. 1342-1343)

Ernst draws implications from media archaeology for his closely connected notion of the multimedia archive. In “Method and Machine,” he says, “With digital archives, there is, in principle, no more delay between memory and the present but rather the technical option of immediate feedback, turning all present data into archival entries and vice versa.” In “Telling versus Counting,” he portrays “a truly multimedia archive that stores images using an image-based method and sound in its own medium … And finally, for the first time in media history, one can archive a technological dispositive in its own medium.” (Ernst, Loc. Loc. 1745-1746; 2527-2529.) Not only is the enactment of history based on playback inherently non-discursive, but the very structure of historical knowledge is written by machines.

With this as background, we can turn to the concrete manifestation of Ernst’s ideas about the Multimedia Archive. This is the lab he has created in Berlin. The website for Ernst’s lab describes The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) as “a collection of various electromechanical and mechanical artefacts as they developed throughout time. Its aim is to provide a perspective that may inspire modern thinking about technology and media within its epistemological implications beyond bare historiography.” (Media Archaeological Fundus) Ernst explained the intention behind the MAF in an interview with Lori Emerson as deriving from the need to experience media “in performative ways.” So he created an assemblage of media and media technologies that could be operated, touched, manipulated and studied directly. He said in this interview, “such items need to be displayed in action to reveal their media essentiality (otherwise a medium like a TV set is nothing but a piece of furniture).” (Owens) Here is media archaeology’s indirect response to the 1979 AFIPS brochure’s suggestion that historical artifacts serve a purpose similar to furnishings in a preserved house.

The media-archaeological take on enacting history depends on access to artifacts and, in its strongest form, on their operation. Even when its engagement with media history is reduced to texts, these must be “tested against the material evidence.” This is the use case for Playback as an enactment of software history.

Take 3. The Re-enactor

Take three. The Re-enactor. Authenticity is an important concept for digital preservation.   A key feature of any digital archive over the preservation life-cycle of its documents and software objects is auditing and verification of authenticity, as in any archive. Access also involves authenticity, as any discussion of emulation or virtualization will bring up the question of fidelity to an historical experience of using software.

John Walker (of AutoDesk and Virtual Reality fame) created a workshop called Fourmilab to work on personal projects such as an on-line museum “celebrating” Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This computer programming heritage work includes historical documents and a Java-based emulator of the Engine. Walker says, “Since we’re fortunate enough to live in a world where Babbage’s dream has been belatedly realised, albeit in silicon rather than brass, we can not only read about The Analytical Engine but experience it for ourselves.” The authenticity of this experience – whatever that means for a machine that never existed – is important to Walker. In a 4500-word essay titled, “Is the Emulator Authentic,” he tells us that, “In order to be useful, an emulator program must be authentic—it must faithfully replicate the behaviour of the machine it is emulating.” By extension, the authenticity of a preserved version of the computer game DOOM in a digital repository could be audited by verifying that it can properly run a DOOM demo file. The same is true for Microsoft Word and a historical document in the Word format. This is a machine-centered notion of authenticity; we used it in the second Preserving Virtual Worlds project as a solution to the significant properties problem for software. (Walker, “Introduction;” Walker, “Analytical Engine.”)

All well and good. However, I want to address a different authenticity. Rather than judging authenticity in terms of playback, I would like to ask what authenticity means for the experience of using software. Another way of putting this question is to ask what we are looking for in the re-enactment of historical software use. So we need to think about historical re-enactment.

I am not a historical re-enactor, at least not the kind you are thinking of. I have never participated in the live recreation or performance of a historical event. Since I have been playing historical simulations – a category of boardgames – for most of my life, perhaps you could say that I re-enact being a historical military officer by staring at maps and moving units around on them. It’s not the same thing as wearing period uniforms and living the life, however.

Anyway, I need a re-enactor. In his 1998 book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz described historical re-enactment in its relationship to lived heritage. (Horwitz) His participant-journalist reportage begins at a chance encounter with a group of “hard-core” Confederate re-enactors. Their conversation leads Horwitz on a year-long voyage through the American South. A featured character in Confederates in the Attic is the re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, a waiter turned Confederate officer. He took Horwitz under his wing and provided basic training in re-enactment. Hodge even became a minor celebrity due to his role in the book.

Hodges teaches Horwitz the difference between hard-core and farby (i.e., more casual) re-enactment. He tells Horwitz about dieting to look sufficiently gaunt and malnourished, the basics of “bloating” to resemble a corpse on the battlefield, what to wear, what not to wear, what to eat, what not to eat, and so on. It’s remarkable how little time he spends on martial basics. One moment sticks out for me. During the night after a hard day of campaigning Horwitz finds himself in the authentic situation of being wet, cold and hungry. He lacks a blanket, so he is given basic instruction in the sleeping technique of the Confederate infantryman: “spooning.” According to the re-enactor Scott Cross, “Spooning is an old term for bundling up together in bed like spoons placed together in the silver chest.” (Horwitz) Lacking adequate bedding and exposed to the elements, soldiers bunched up to keep warm. So that’s what Horwitz does, not as an act of mimesis or performance per se, but in order to re-experience the reality of Civil War infantrymen.

It interested me that of all the re-enactment activities Horwitz put himself through, spooning reveals a deeper commitment to authenticity than any of the combat performances he describes. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, so requires dedication and persistence. Sleep becomes self-conscious, not just in order to stick with the activity, but because the point of it is to recapture a past experience of sleeping on the battlefield. Since greater numbers of participants are needed for re-enacting a battle than sleep, more farbs (the less dedicated re-enactors) show up and thus the general level of engagement declines. During staged battles, spectators, scripting, confusion and accidents all interfere with the experience. Immersion breaks whenever dead soldiers pop up on the command, “resurrect.” In other words, performance takes over primacy from the effort to re-experience. It is likely that many farbs dressed up for battle are content to find a hotel to sleep in.

Specific attention to the details of daily life might be a reflection of recent historical work that emphasizes social and cultural histories of the Civil War period, rather than combat histories. But that’s not my takeaway from the spooning re-enactors. Rather, it’s the standard of authenticity that goes beyond performance of a specific event (such as a battle) to include life experience as a whole. Horvitz recalled that,

Between gulps of coffee—which the men insisted on drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs—Cool and his comrades explained the distinction. Hardcores didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time travel high, or what hardcores called a ‘period rush.’ (Horwitz, Loc. 153-157)

Stephen Gapps, an Australian curator, historian, and re-enactor has spoken of the “extraordinary lengths” re-enactors go to “acquire and animate the look and feel of history.” Hard-core is not just about marching, shooting and swordplay. I wonder what a “period rush” might be for the experience of playing Pitfall! in the mid-21st century. Shag rugs? Ambient New Wave radio? Caffeine-free cola? Will future re-enactors of historical software seek this level of experiential fidelity? Gapps, again: “Although reenactors invoke the standard of authenticity, they also understand that it is elusive – worth striving for, but never really attainable.” (Gapps 397)

Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience. I see some similarity here with the correspondence to lived historical experience in White’s striving for a discursive mimesis. Yet, like media archaeology, re-enactment puts performance above discourse, though it is the performance of humans rather than machines.

Playing Pitfalls

We now have three different ways to think about potential uses of historical software and born digital documentation. I will shift my historian’s hat to one side of my head now and slide up my curator’s cap. If we consider these takes as use cases, do they help us decide how to allocate resources to acquire, preserve, describe and provide access to digital collections?

In May 2013, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) of the U.S. Library of Congress (henceforth: LC) held a conference called Preserving.exe. The agenda was to articulate the “problems and opportunities of software preservation.” In my contribution to the LC conference report issued a few months later, I described three “lures of software preservation.” (Lowood) These are potential pitfalls as we move from software collections to digital repositories and from there to programs of access to software collections. The second half of this paper will be an attempt to introduce the three lures of software preservation to the three takes on historical enactment.

  1. The Lure of the Screen

Let’s begin with the Lure of the Screen. This is the idea that what counts in digital media is what is delivered to the screen. This lure pops up in software preservation when we evaluate significant properties of software as surface properties (graphics, audio, haptics, etc).

This lure of the screen is related to what media studies scholars such as Nick Montfort, Mark Sample and Matt Kirschenbaum have dubbed (in various but related contexts) “screen essentialism.” If the significant properties of software are all surface properties, then our perception of interaction with software tells us all we need to know. We check graphics, audio, responses to our use of controllers, etc., and if they look and act as they should, we have succeeded in preserving an executable version of historical software. These properties are arguably the properties that designers consider as the focus of user interaction and they are the easiest to inspect and verify directly.

The second Preserving Virtual Worlds project was concerned primarily with identifying significant properties of interactive game software. On the basis of several case sets and interviews with developers and other stakeholders, we concluded that isolating surface properties, such as image colourspace as one example, while significant for other media such as static images, is not a particularly useful approach to take for game software. With interactive software, significance appears to be variable and contextual, as one would expect from a medium in which content is expressed through a mixture of design and play, procedurality and emergence. It is especially important that software abstraction levels are not “visible” on the surface of play. It is difficult if not impossible to monitor procedural aspects of game design and mechanics, programming and technology by inspecting properties expressed on the screen.

The preservation lifecycle for software is likely to include data migration. Access to migrated software will probably occur through emulation. How do we know when our experience of this software is affected by these practices? One answer is that we audit significant properties, and as we now know, it will be difficult to predict which characteristics are significant. An alternative or companion approach for auditing the operation of historical software is to verify the execution of data files. The integrity of the software can be evaluated by comparison to documented disk images or file signatures such as hashes or checksums. However, when data migration or delivery environments change the software or its execution environment, this method is inadequate. We must evaluate software performance. Instead of asking whether the software “looks right,” we can check if it runs verified data-sets that meet the specifications of the original software. Examples range from word processing documents to saved game and replay files. Of course, visual inspection of the content plays a role in verifying execution by the software engine; failure will not always be clearly indicated by crashes or error messages. Eliminating screen essentialism does not erase surface properties altogether.

The three takes compel us to think about the screen problem in different ways. First, the Historian is not troubled by screen essentialism. His construction of a narrative mimesis invokes a selection of source materials that may or may not involve close reading of personal gameplay, let alone focus on surface properties. On the other hand, The Re-enactor’s use of software might lead repositories to fret about what the user sees, hears and feels. It makes sense with this use case to think about the re-enactment as occurring at the interface. If a repository aims to deliver a re-enacted screen experience, it will need to delve deeply into questions of significant properties and their preservation.

Screen essentialism is also a potential problem for repositories that follow the path of Media Archaeology. It is unclear to me how a research site like the MAF would respond to digital preservation practices based on data migration and emulation. Can repositories meet the requirements of media archaeologists without making a commitment to preservation of working historical hardware to enable playback from original media? It’s not just that correspondence to surface characteristics is a significant property for media archaeologists. Nor is the Lure of the Screen a criticism of Media Archaelogy. I propose instead that it is a research problem. Ernst’s vision of a Multimedia Archive is based on the idea that media archaeology moves beyond playback to reveal mechanisms of counting. This machine operation clearly is not a surface characteristic. Ernst would argue, I think, that this counting is missed by an account of what is seen on the screen. So let’s assign the task of accounting for counting to the Media Archaeologist, which means showing us how abstraction layers in software below the surface can be revealed, audited and studied.

  1. The Lure of the Authentic Experience

I have already said quite a bit about authenticity. Let me explain now why I am sceptical about an authentic experience of historical software, and why this is an important problem for software collections.

Everyone in game or software studies knows about emulation. Emulation projects struggle to recreate an authentic experience of operating a piece of software such as playing a game. Authenticity here means that the use experience today is like it was. The Lure of the Authentic Experience tells digital repositories at minimum not to preserve software in a manner that would interfere with the production of such experiences. At maximum, repositories deliver authentic experiences, whether on-site or on-line. A tall order. In the minimum case, the repository provides software and collects hardware specifications, drivers or support programs. The documentation provides software and hardware specifications. Researchers use this documentation to reconstruct the historical look-and-feel of software to which they have access. In the maximum case, the repository designs and builds access environments. Using the software authentically would then probably mean a trip to the library or museum with historical or bespoke hardware. The reading room becomes the site of the experience.

I am not happy to debunk the Authentic Experience. Authenticity is a concept fraught not just with intellectual issues, but with registers ranging from nostalgia and fandom to immersion and fun. It is a minefield. The first problem is perhaps an academic point, but nonetheless important: Authenticity is always constructed. Whose lived experience counts as “authentic” and how has it been documented? Is the best source a developer’s design notes? The memory of someone who used the software when it was released? A marketing video? The researcher’s self-reflexive use in a library or museum? If a game was designed for kids in 1985, do you have to find a kid to play it in 2050? In the case of software with a long history, such as Breakout or Microsoft Word, how do we account for the fact that the software was used on a variety of platforms – do repositories have to account for all of them? For example, does the playing of DOOM “death match” require peer-to-peer networking on a local area network, a mouse-and-keyboard control configuration and a CRT display? There are documented cases of different configurations of hardware: track-balls, hacks that enabled multiplayer via TCPIP, monitors of various shapes and sizes, and so on. Which differences matter?

A second problem is that the Authentic Experience is not always that useful to the researcher, especially the researcher studying how historical software executes under the hood. The emulated version of a software program often compensates for its lack of authenticity by offering real-time information about system states and code execution. A trade-off for losing authenticity thus occurs when the emulator shows the underlying machine operation, the counting, if you will. What questions will historians of technology, practitioners of code studies or game scholars ask about historical software? I suspect that many researchers will be as interested in how the software works as in a personal experience deemed authentic.   As for more casual appreciation, the Guggenheim’s Seeing Double exhibition and Margaret Hedstrom’s studies of emulation suggest that exhibition visitors actually prefer reworked or updated experiences of historical software. (Hedstrom, Lee, et al.; Jones)

This is not to say that original artefacts – both physical and “virtual” – will not be a necessary part of the research process. Access to original technology provides evidence regarding its constraints and affordances. I put this to you not as a “one size fits all” decision but as an area of institutional choice based on objectives and resources.

The Re-enactor, of course, is deeply committed to the Authentic Experience. If all we offer is emulation, what do we say to him, besides “sorry.” Few digital repositories will be preoccupied with delivering authentic experiences as part of their core activity. The majority are likely to consider a better use of limited resources to be ensuring that validated software artefacts and contextual information are available on a case-by-case basis to researchers who do the work of re-enactment. Re-enactors will make use of documentation. Horwitz credits Robert Lee Hodge with an enormous amount of research time spent at the National Archives and Library of Congress. Many hours of research with photographs and documents stand behind his re-enactments. In short, repositories should let re-enactors be the re-enactors.

Consider this scenario for software re-enactment. You are playing an Atari VCS game with the open-source Stella emulator. It bothers you that viewing the game on your LCD display differs from the experience with a 1980s-era television set. You are motivated by this realization to contribute code to the Stella project for emulating a historical display. It is theoretically possible that you could assemble everything needed to create an experience that satisfies you – an old television, adapters, an original VCS, the software, etc. (Let’s not worry about the shag rug and the lava lamp.) You can create this personal experience on your own, then write code that matches it. My question: Is the result less “authentic” if you relied on historical documentation such as video, screenshots, technical specifications, and other evidence available in a repository to describe the original experience? My point is that repositories can cooperatively support research by re-enactors who create their version of the experience. Digital repositories should consider the Authentic Experience as more of a research problem than a repository problem.

  1. The Lure of the Executable

The Lure of the Executable evaluates software preservation in terms of success at building collections of software that can be executed on-demand by researchers.

Why do we collect historical software? Of course, the reason is that computers, software, and digital data have had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of recent history. What should we collect? David Bearman’s answer in 1987 was the “software archive.” He distinguished this archive from what I will call the software library. The archive assembles documentation; the library provides historical software. The archive was a popular choice in the early days. Margaret Hedstrom reported that attendees at the 1990 Arden Conference on the Preservation of Microcomputer Software “debated whether it was necessary to preserve software itself in order to provide a sense of ‘touch and feel’ or whether the history of software development could be documented with more traditional records.” (Hedstrom and Bearman) In 2002, the Smithsonian’s David Allison wrote about collecting historical software in museums that, “supporting materials are often more valuable for historical study than code itself. They provide contextual information that is critical to evaluating the historical significance of the software products.” He concluded that operating software is not a high priority for historical museums. (Allison 263-65; cf. Shustek)

Again, institutional resources are not as limitless as the things we would like to do with software. Curators must prioritize among collections and services. The choice between software archive and library is not strictly binary, but choices still must be made.

I spend quite a bit of my professional life in software preservation projects. The end-product of these projects is at least in part the library of executable historical software. I understand the Lure of the Executable and the reasons that compel digital repositories to build collections of verified historical software that can be executed on-demand by researchers. This is the Holy Grail of digital curation with respect to software history. What could possibly be wrong with this mission, if it can be executed?   As I have argued on other occasions there are several problems to consider. Let me give you two. The first is that software does not tell the user very much about how it has previously been used. In the best case, application software in its original use environment might display a record of files created by previous users, such as a list of recently opened files found in many productivity titles like Microsoft Office. The more typical situation is that software is freshly installed from data files in the repository and thus completely lacks information about its biography, for want of a better term.

The second, related problem is fundamental. Documentation that is a prerequisite for historical studies of software is rarely located in software. It is more accurate to say that this documentation surrounds software in development archives (including source code) and records of use and reception. It is important to understand that this is not just a problem for historical research. Documentation is also a problem for repositories. If contextual information such as software dependencies or descriptions of relationships among objects is not available to the repository and all the retired software engineers who knew the software inside-and-out are gone – it may be impossible to get old software to run.

Historians, of course, will usually be satisfied with the Archive. Given limited resources, is it reasonable to expect that the institutions responsible for historical collections of documentation will be able to reconcile such traditional uses with other methods of understanding historical computing systems? The Re-enactor will want to run software, and the Media Archaeologist will not just want access to a software library, but to original media and hardware in working order. These are tall orders for institutional repositories such as libraries and archives, though possibly a better fit to the museum or digital history centre.

In Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, James Newman is not optimistic about software preservation and he describes how the marketing of software has in some ways made this a near impossibility. He is not as pessimistic about video game history, however. In a section of his book provocatively called “Let Videogames Die,” he argues that a documentary approach to gameplay might be a more pragmatic enterprise than the effort to preserve playable games. He sees this as a “shift away from conceiving of play as the outcome of preservation to a position that acknowledges play as an indivisible part of the object of preservation.” (Newman 160) In other words, what happens when we record contemporary use of software to create historical documentation of that use? Does this activity potentially reduce the need for services that provide for use at any given time in the future? This strikes me as a plausible historical use case, but not one for re-enactment or media archaeology.

Software archives or software libraries? That is the question. Is it nobler to collect documentation or to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous software installations? The case for documentation is strong. The consensus among library and museum curators (including myself) is almost certainly that documents from source code to screenshots are a clear win for historical studies of software. Historians, however, will not be the only visitors to the archive. But there are other reasons to collect documentation. One of the most important reasons, which I briefly noted above, is that software preservation requires such documentation. In other words, successful software preservation activities are dependent upon technical, contextual and rights documentation. And of course, documents tell re-enactors how software was used and can help media archaeologists figure out what their machines are showing or telling them. But does documentation replace the software library? Is it sufficient to build archives of software history without libraries of historical software? As we have seen, this question was raised nearly forty years ago and remains relevant today. My wish is that this question of the relationship between documentation and software as key components of digital heritage work stir conversation among librarians, historians, archivists and museum curators. This conversation must consider that there is likely to be a broad palette of use cases such as the historian, media archaeologist and re-enactor, as well as many others not mentioned here. It is unlikely that any one institution can respond to every one of these use cases. Instead, the more likely result is a network of participating repositories, each of which will define priorities and allocate resources according to both their specific institutional contexts and an informed understanding of the capabilities of partner institutions.

 

References

Allison, David K. “Preserving Software in History Museums: A Material Culture Approach. Ed. Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard Keil-Slawik and Arthur L. Norberg. History of Computing: Software Issues. Berlin: Springer, 2002. 263-272.

Bearman, David. Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives and Museums. Archival Informatics Technical Report #2 (Spring 1987).

— “What Are/Is Informatics? And Especially, What/Who is Archives & Museum Informatics?” Archival Informatics Newsletter 1:1 (Spring 1987): 8.

Cross, Scott. “The Art of Spooning.” Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society. 13 July 2016. Web. http://www.agsas.org/howto/outdoor/art_of_spooning.shtml. Originally published in The Company Wag 2, no. 1 (April 1989).

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. (Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press, 2012). Kindle edition.

Gapps, Stephen. “Mobile monuments: A view of historical reenactment and authenticity from inside the costume cupboard of history.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 13:3 (2009): 395-409.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., Christopher A. Lee, Judith S. Olson and Clifford A. Lampe, “‘The Old Version Flickers More’: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective.” The American Archivist, 69: 1 (Spring – Summer 2006): 159-187.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., and David Bearman, “Preservation of Microcomputer Software: A Symposium,” Archives and Museum Informatics 4:1 (Spring 1990): 10.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Caitlin. “Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice. The Erl King Study.” Paper presented to the Electronic Media Group, 14 June 2004. Electronic Media Group. Web. http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/emg/library/pdf/jones/Jones-EMG2004.pdf

Lowood, Henry. “The Lures of Software Preservation.” Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (October 2013): 4-11. Web. http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/multimedia/documents/PreservingEXE_report_final101813.pdf

Media Archaeological Fundus. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. http://www.medienwissenschaft.hu-berlin.de/medientheorien/fundus/media-archaeological-fundus

Newman, James. Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence. London: Routledge, 2012.

Owens, Trevor. “Archives, Materiality and the ‘Agency of the Machine’: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst.” The Signal: Digital Preservation. Web. 8 February 2013. http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2013/02/archives-materiality-and-agency-of-the-machine-an-interview-with-wolfgang-ernst/

“Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 1 (Jan.-March 1980): 4-6.

Shustek, Len. “What Should We Collect to Preserve the History of Software?” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 28 (Oct.-Dec. 2006): 110-12.

Walker, John. “Introduction” to The Analytical Engine: The First Computer.” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/

— “The Analytical Engine: Is the Emulator Authentic?,” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/authentic.html

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987.

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

— “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In: History and Theory 23: 1 (Feb. 1984): 1-33.

 

Bio

Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and for Film & Media Collections at Stanford University. He has led the How They Got Game project at Stanford University since 2000 and is the co-editor of The Machinima Reader and Debugging Game History, both published by MIT Press. Contact: lowood@stanford.edu

 

Playing At Work – Samuel Tobin

Abstract: People play games at work, especially digital games, rather than asking “why” this paper starts with “how”? To do so the game Minecraft and its players are used as a focus to address how people manage to play while at work and in workplaces. This data is drawn from public online forums where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, social and ethical play constraints and share their feelings, experiences and successes. In these specific and detailed accounts of media practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces we see the shifting nature of public and private, of work and leisure.

Minecraft-Banner

Playing at Work         

This paper focuses on the way people play the game Minecraft (Mojang, 2001) at work and the ways in which they talk about that play and the practices that support it.  The Minecraft players I study write about this play and the tactics needed to engage in it at work as a combination of subterfuge, escape, challenge, invention and guilt-ridden compulsion. I show how this complicated relation to their play is informed by the ways in which play, games, work and the work place are continuously redefined through these players’ practices and discourse. I focus on adult players of the game Minecraft and the ways they manage to play while they are at work. This data is drawn from the forum reddit.com, where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, and social play constraints. These online discussions detail a range of technical and play practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces. In these practices and discourse we see the continuously shifting nature of public, private, work, leisure, mobility and most of all play.

From the Minecraft subreddit on reddit:

thread title: who plays Minecraft at work?

I’ll be honest, this game has pretty much destroyed my productivity recently. I work in IT so I’m on the computer all day. I also have my own office so people cruising by and catching me building really isn’t an issue. Since I bought thisgame 2 weeks ago I’ve wasted more time at work than I even care to admit. Everyday I tell myself I will focus and do actual work, and everyday boredomsets in and I am drawn to Minecraft like a moth to a flame. I am a sad pathetic   individual. Who else is with me? – Apt Get

The short answer is “lots of people.” But what these people mean when they say “Yes, I play Minecraft at work” and refer to themselves as “sad pathetic individuals” is complicated. To address these complicated and complicit issues, I focus on the central problem for these players: “How do you bring your game to work?”  In the sections that follow I rework the phrase “bring your game to work,” stressing different words to expose what is at stake in these spaces and practices of work and of play. First, however, we need to ask what people might or could mean by Minecraft. In exploring how people play Minecraft at work (or any game), we are asking “how” not just in the sense of “How do you manage” but also “In what manner” do you play at work.  The manner or way of playing changes the nature of the game, redefines it, pushes certain aspects of the game forward while eliding others.  As we will see below, players redefine Minecraft, sometimes radically, as they need to in order to play it.

Here at the outset are some general observations and caveats.  At the time of this research (2011-2012) few posters in the subreddits (as the forum threads of reddit are called) mentioned mobile or “Pocket” versions of the game when discussing how to play it at work. This may be due to a kind of self-selection of Minecraft fans in the threads.  People who like the game enough to read and write about it on an online forum may not be interested in playing it on platforms other than the PC or laptop.  In any case, the issue of mobility for most reddit users is not as much about buying a Minecraft app for a smartphone, as getting Minecraft onto their work computers. What we see when we look at the responses people gave to the question “How do you play Minecraft at work?” is a move to redefine what Minecraft play can be while referencing a core experience and object: PC-based Minecraft play.

playing at work

Foregrounding the “at” in the phrase “playing at work,” focuses our attention on “work” as “workspace,” a space constituted by labor, and also by architecture, furniture, expectations, routines, and movements.  We need to attend to the implications of bringing play materials and practices into the workspace, and to the movements such play demands.  The workplace context and the practices it demands make mobile a game which otherwise might not be. This complicates definitions of mobile games, while reinforcing the importance of space and situation to the understanding of game play.

To play Minecraft at work, players need to find ways to bring the game with them to the office. The barriers to this are technical, securitized, cultural and practical. In order to access saved games through workplace firewalls, players trade tactical tips on online forums on how to load Minecraft files onto thumb drives, email zips to themselves, and to otherwise convince their work networks that no barriers have been breached and that nothing is amiss.  Commenters discuss issues of visual surveillance and subterfuge, with extensive discussion of monitor tilting, lines of sight, glare, minimizing routines, hotkeys, and ways to arrange a play mis en place that looks like work (a point we will return to).  These commentators are not always employees contriving to avoid being caught by their boss: the thread at the top of this piece was originated by a boss, Apt Get, who wants to hide his play from his peers as well as from his underlings, and ultimately from himself. These techniques of circumventing lines of sight and firewalls allow people to play at work and at the same time shape and define what that play can be. This play is both proscribed and defined by the context. While details and the differences are important, what these players in all sorts of work contexts share is an array of needs, worries and techniques developed in order to play at work.

It is easy to see how work could be a hostile environment for Minecraft play. Yet in many cases, for some players, work is a less fraught play space than other alternatives. As Apt Get’s comments later in his thread on playing Minecraft at work shows:

Glad to know I’m not alone. I am also guilty of sketching things on graph paper during meetings when I am without a computer. I am married and have 2 small kids, so work is about the only time I get to play.  – Apt Get

This comment reminds us not to assume a neat split between workplace and labor on one side, and domesticity and leisure on the other. The nature of the relation between work and play is a key issue for any study of play or games. In Games of Empire (2009), Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford discuss the historical transformation of this relationship through their critical account of games, capitalism and immaterial labor. In Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy (2000), Tiziana Terranova makes similar points. Julian Kücklich’s account of computer game modification, or “modding” as a strange mixture of labor and play or “playbour” (2005), also helps us historize the shifting relationship between play and work, and the new hybrid modes that emerge from these categories. In “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” (2015),  Nicholas Taylor et al. show how what we might assume is “just” play can in fact be work.

These questions of the work-play relation predate contemporary developments in game studies. We see the relation and separation enforced to different degrees in classics such as Roger Caillois’s Play and Games and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Hannah Arendt writes in the Human Condition: “(A)ll serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness.” (1998) Similarly, in the “Sociology of Sociability,” Georg Simmel expresses an interest in play because of its very apartness from other ‘material’ spheres of life, including work (1949). Separation for these authors is a matter of motivation, economics and necessity.

For Apt Get and many responders at reddit, work is defined spatially. Apt Get asks: “Do you play Minecraft at work?” rather than asking, “Do you play Minecraft instead of work?” Work, for Apt Get and many other players, work is defined more as a place than an activity. This definition of work as a location means that itretains its status as a place for labor even when play is brought in to it. To understand what is at stake when people bring their Minecraft play to work, we need to pay attention not just to what they mean by “work” and “at work” but also to what they mean by “home” and what they do “at home.” For Apt Get, his job is where he can play, even if it is difficult to do so. He can’t or won’t play at home. His posts suggest it is more difficult for him to play at home than it is a work. No doubt many of us recognize ourselves and our workplaces in these posts. What we find in the threads is a complicated and contradictory range of attitudes, experiences and ideas about the appropriateness, pleasures, worries and requirements of playing Minecraft (and other games) at home as well as at work.

Is playing at work always a modified, compromised form of Minecraft play? Not necessarily. This author, who has the luxury of work of an office with a door, a personal computer, and students who rarely take advantage of office hours, is able to play Minecraft in an as unfettered manner as one could hope for. Indeed like Apt Get, time at work was the only time I really could play Minecraft or, for that matter, wanted to. Game play is never “free-play,” as it is always defined and constrained as well as afforded in by the exigencies of everyday life (office, door, computer, students, teaching preparation, publication pressures). Play is always in relation to the everyday, to the rhythms of leisure and labor and socialization and movement and the un-freeness of free time.  Playing at work then is not (or not just) a more constrained or diminished form of play, even if it is often viewed this way.  Playing at work is a compromise, but a compromise that can lead to new and interesting permutations of play.

Minecraft play is typically described as open-ended, free, and creative, in short as the kind of play celebrated by ludic utopians of every stripe.  But what we see in the Minecraft “subbreddit” is a discussion of an even more expansive and “free” play, one perversely bounded by the space of work, as we can see in following two examples, which while specific and personal, are not outliers, and which give glimpses of play tactics and techniques shared in the Minecraft forums, when responding to the question: “How do you play at work?”

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he "plays at work."  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he “plays at work.”  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 2. A player shows how he "plays at work" by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

Figure 2. A player shows how he “plays at work” by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

These are very different ways to play Minecraft.  They are different from each other and different from our expectations of how people play Minecraft. These (seemingly) radically different approaches to Minecraft play result in part from differences between these two posters’ workplaces.  However what these two players share are places of work filled with tools and objects of labor. Both players use the stuff of their jobs to build things as Minecraft play practice.  Each is playing Minecraft, but in a kind of play that arises out of and reflects the specific contextual affordances and constraints of their work. Each plays in a way that is both in contestation and conjunction with work and its boundaries.  These two images of Minecraft play would not exist without the work and work places that shaped them. These are just two examples of how the space and tools of one’s work shapes the kinds of play needed to fit those contexts. For every job site and set of tools or materials, we might expect to find different play practices. These examples point to the need to account for a thicker, messier kind of play for playing not just Minecraft, but for all kinds of games played at work.  And while Minecraft may be especially suited to these ludic perruques, it is not unique in being a game people like to play when they are otherwise expected to be working. For each game, as for each work site, we can expect new play practices, cultures and experiences.

With these new practices we get new discourse. How do the Minecraft forum commentators talk about their relationship to this place into which, against which, and with which they forge new play practices?  Many commentators, Apt Get included, use negative and loaded language borrowed from substance abuse and addiction to describe their relationship to their Minecraft play. In my book, Portable Play in Everyday Life, I found that Nintendo DS players use these same metaphors to describe games that they play intensely (2013). We see similar language going back all the way to David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld. The angst conveyed by this fraught language seems to go against the perspectives we see in work by researchers like Leonard Reinecke (2009) or Paul Mastrangelo et al. (2006), who argue that play at work is useful or salutary in the sense that it helps one to work better or longer. This perspective may seem managerial or exploitive, but it is also useful for those of us who are invested in a critical approach to games, and to further examining the connections between play, work, playbour and leisure. The reddit commentators are much more likely to talk about their play as transgressive, criminal or pathetic, than restorative. Their discourse is not one of break-rooms and recharging, but of addiction, subterfuge, and tricks. I suggest that this kind of player language should be read as not (only) about compulsion or addiction, but also as code for a particular kind of pleasure and awareness of the larger cultural context for understanding and describing that pleasure. It is a compliment to call a game addictive. It is not only a self-flagellating or distancing remark.

play at work

This discourse brings with it the habitus of the addict: of secret drunks and self-deception.  In order to keep the activity going, there needs to be subterfuge, evasion, cover and camouflage. This is a different kind of playing, a “playing at.” This is playing at in the sense of playing as make believe, as “acting as though.”  This approach to playing at work owes much to Johan Huizinga’s sense of play as always secretive, even in plain sight, and as having a “pretend” quality (Huizinga 1955). It also carries a bit of the sense of calling out something as deceptive, as bullshit, as in the phrase: “What are you playing at?”

The kind of pretense most essential for these commentators is pretending to work while “really” playing.  The hidden or furtive aspect of playing games at work is neither new nor endemic to Minecraft.  Older Macintosh users may remember the “quick the boss is coming” feature from games such as Othello, a command which would instantly bring up a mock spreadsheet to hide your game.  The personal computer’s WIMP interface (windows, icons, menus, pointer), with its layers upon layers of windows, allows a kind of slight of hand and easy hiding of games or other NSFW (Not Safe For Work) activities.  Digital games can be harder to sneak into work outside of white-collar office settings. But as desktop and other types of computers increasingly are used in stores as point of sale systems, in entry ways, and at front desks, we can suspect that many are being used to play games, although it is impossible to know how many, how often — I know that I played a lot of web based games while a clerk at a wine store.  This kind of video game playing at work has clear connections to la perruque (“the wig”) as described by Michel de Certeau, except instead of “a worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer” it is a worker’s play disguised as work. This has more in common with how de Certeau mobilizes la perruque to describe a whole range of practical détournement (s) of time and space (2002).  The time and the spaces which are constituted by work are not our own but spaces of the other. As de Certeau writes:

(A) tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power (2002).

We should take literally de Certeau’s suggestion that the tactic “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it.”  In the case of Apt Get and his interlocutors, this terrain is one of cubicles and frosted glass, but also of box trucks, servers, firewalls, nosey neighbors, and if we merge terrain with time, deadlines, lunch breaks and all-nighters.

If we look back to the algebra-derived model above, or think of design doodles in meetings, or other more expansive ideas of what constitutes Minecraft play, we see that these are perhaps unsurprisingly also potentially cases of perruquesque tactics.  The shipping box stacking, while not at all subtle, takes advantage of the fact that the thing being used in play is also the thing used at work, here not just boxes, but also the act (and skill) of stacking them.  This points not just to a flexibility inherit in the tactics needed to play at work, but also to a more fundamental relationship and tension we see in cases where objects of labor are used for play or pleasure.  This is especially common in digital play (think of the keyboard and mouse of pc gaming), but as the shipping box example demonstrates, not unique to digital play. The tools employed in the case of Minecraft play at work, whether the PC in orthodox forms of Minecraft play, or the diverse workplace materials (graph paper, algebraic software) of the more outré tactics, are always ready to shift back and forth between ludic and mundane. Whatever is reworked towards play always shifts back.  This too, is consistent with de Certeau’s understanding of the tactics of everyday life; whatever tactics of subterfuge might win us, we must be willing to readily discard (2002).  Minecraft play at work is a kind of playing at the level of mimesis and pretense as well as duration; it is, in the best sense of the word, improvised.

To close, let’s return to the two images presented above of work-place play (or work/place/play). If we (mis)read these as being about Minecraft play, and not forms of Minecraft play itself, we leave behind these practices and these players. If we leave exclude these players and their play from our definition of what Minecraft play really is, we must then face the realization that there is no center to hold on to in defining Minecraft play: When is it real, really? In adventure or survival mode? When one is playing alone, or only in groups? Networked or not? To better understand all forms of digital play we must take the limit or fringe cases seriously.  Stacking real boxes at work at first may seem like a strange way to play Minecraft, but it is also somehow the most Minecrafty practice one can think of.  This is due to the creativity of the player, but also to the centrality of space and context for determining what play looks like and what play can be.  We move then from the ideal to the possible, from the discrete to the situated, from the simulated workspace of the mine to the real and contested work place of the player.

This is a move that we need to make when we study games in general, a move towards the world of the player rather than just the world of the game. This is important not only for understanding work-themed games played at work, or mobile games played on the go, but also for understanding more seemingly stable arrangements between player and place, from the historic arcade, to the tavern, to the couch and TV coupling of the home.  These spaces are in many ways as mysterious and as contested as any mine, dungeon, or alien galaxy. When we listen to players talk about how they play rather than just what they play we can begin to attend more to the nuances of these mundane spaces to understand the situated, contextual and contingent nature of play and to see play as always complicated and complicit.  We may well then arrive at an understanding of play as more like the rest of our lives: complicated, compromised, and vital.

 

References

apt_get. “How Many of You are Playing Minecraft at Work?” http://Minecraft.reddit.com/r/Minecraft/comments/dtbiz/how_many (accessed November 2011)

Arendt, Hannah, and Margaret Canovan. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Caillois, Roger, and Meyer Barash. 2001. Man, play, and games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

De Certeau, 2002. Michel The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig De Peuter. 2009. Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mastrangelo, Everton, and Jeffery A. Jolton. 2006. “Personal Use of Work Computers: Distraction versus Destruction,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. 9, no. 6, 730-741.

Reinecke Leonard. 2009. “Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games

During Working Hours” CyberPsychology & Behavior 12, no. 4 461.

Simmel, G. and E. C. Hughes. “The Sociology of Sociability.” The American Journal of Sociology 55, no. 3 (1949): 254-261.

Sudnow, David. 1983. Pilgrim in the microworld. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books.

Taylor, N., Bergstrom, K., Jenson, J. & de Castell, S. 2015. “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online,” Games and Culture 365-388

Tobin, Samuel. 2013. Portable Play in Everyday Life, Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text, 63 (Volume 18, Number 2), Summer 2000, 33-58

 

Bio

Samuel Tobin is an Assistant Professor of Communications Media and Game Design at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts who studies play, media and everyday life. He is the author of Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)

 

 

‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock – Rock Chugg

Abstract: Fostering male tradition in popular music, rock’n’roll history often underrated the early Girl Group chart-topping era of 1958-63 after Elvis and before Beatlemania. By the 1990s-2000s, Riot Grrrl and Girl Power success was again devalued by that homosocial music scene. Beset by neoliberal managerialism, even academic and market research played it safe, recognising corporatist Indie and nationalist Brit-Pop, while Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style components of a new female genre went unrecognised. Consecutive social exclusion (Riot Grrrl) and social capital (Girl Power) factors in the sound, dubbed Barbie Rock from stereotyped songs, like global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ (1997-8) were intensified by the shifting role of primary and secondary definers in digital media. For popular music, such shifts included 1) rock-press computerisation; 2) moral panic news; and 3) video monopoly. Illustrated with quotes from Barbie Rock fanzine Polymer, the paper culminates in an in-between Riot Grrrl and Girl Power case study of Barbie Rock front-woman, Caroline Finch. The high profile of female pop music today (‘rock’n’roll’s’), although demonised (‘evil’), confirms the ongoing influence of this 1990s genre on a now digitalised era of the plasticised body (‘doll’).

        

Barbie, Barbie, still in her teens
Bell of the parties, a tom boy in jeans

                                      ‘Barbie’ – The Beach Boys, 1962

Figure 1: Polymer News 

Figure 1: Polymer News

Introduction: ‘rock’n’roll’s evil doll’[1]

Apparently nothing new happened in 1990s music. ‘I shall not be discussing new genres’ says genre expert Negus, ‘this would require the lucky researcher to be in the right time and place to chart their emergence’ (1999: 29). If we take the risk society seriously, that ‘time and place’ has disappeared into the virtual reality of an information age. Even postmodern criticism is unsure of the extent to which contemporary ‘art’ is ‘mediocrity squared. It claims to be bad – “I am bad! I am bad!” – and it truly is bad.’ (Lotringer, 2005). The prevailing view finds entire cultural scenes, let alone popular music, in lockstep vicious recycle mode. Yet a revolution turned counter-revolution, keen to dismiss new female music as dissipated ‘victim-babes’ (Greer, 1999) or incongruous as ‘a camel on a bicycle’ (Raphael, 1995), is met with ‘Riot Grrrl’ resistance (Riley, 1994) and ‘Spice Girl’[2] dissent (Lumby, 1998). While self-exclusion glossed by token inclusion maybe the virtual failure of ‘Barbie Rock’ (see part 4 below), what men don’t know and Grrrl Power understands is that for rock‘n’roll this is also its actual success.

My illustrative data for the Barbie Rock genre was captured in opened-ended research from primary sources. Tanner endorses musical genres as ‘better addressed with more qualitative research’ (2008: 189). In this case over fifty musicians, writers and experts were interviewed in Polymer magazine between 1997 and 2002. Semi-structured and tailored questions, snowballed from celebrity participants, drew diverse reactions to the sexed genre, ranging from fanatical gusto to detached cool. Attentive to notoriety, it was considered true to their initial fanzine sample to ‘spell out’ the names of participants, with reference to Bourdieu’s precedent (1988: 278). Artefact of intense independent and mainstream media activism (fanzine to glossy magazine), Barbie Rock integrated original low fi ‘potty mouthed’ Brat Mobile Riot Grrrls with high tech ‘wanna be’ Spice Girls Power. Théberge corroborates magazines, ‘as a central element in the “framing” of popular musical forms’ (1991a: 271).

Formulated in a context of hung-parliament cartels, the notion of ‘social exclusion’ unites Blair’s New Labour to Giddens’ Third Way, linking a potential for improved poverty studies with criteria like ‘non-participation’. In practice, contradictory accounts noted the social wage benefiting low-income groups while high-income group levels fell (Bradshaw, 2004: 173). Or alternately, loss of the public realm, social individual and democracy based collective provision (Hall, 2005: 328). Predictably, events like increased economic polarisation and exclusion,[3] uncorrected by token multicultural inclusion or mutual obligation, largely confirm the latter view. Less a non-participatory than anti-intellectual check on popular culture, utopian neoliberal policy moved business cycles away from subversions dear to rock-press turned academics (Reynolds, 1988), now co-opted in education rehab. Stale formats from industry models of 1980s ‘Indie’ underculture (Hesmondhalgh, 1999: 35) consoled post-genre quietism accompanied by neutralising trivia, like the TV ‘rock quiz’. Against these general factors of resistance to new genre subcultures Hesmondhalgh concedes particulars, like an ‘increased policing of copyright, in ways that have favoured the oligopolistic corporations dominating cultural production, actually inhibits creativity rather than promotes it’ (2007: 88). Such life experience pressures on primary and secondary media definers, overriding female music innovation, displaced a normally creative function of both the rock-press and musician alike:

No, rock’n’roll has no future, absolutely not! – Craig N. Pearce, journalist (Quatro)[4]

Sorry, are like you suggesting that the Paradise Motel can be referred to as ‘Barbie Girl’? – Merida Sussex, Paradise Motel (Stone)

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Addressing the theme of social exclusion directly, Bayton itemised ‘“constraints” facing the potential female musician’ as ‘material’ (money, equipment, transport) and ‘ideological’ (hegemonic masculinity and femininity). ‘What was interesting was the way in which women are able to overcome or evade…exclusion’ (1998: 189). Interestingly, she suggested ‘escapes’ or ‘resistances’ (role models, feminism and lesbianism) centred on theories of symbolic interactionism. Contextualising the argument further, here I suggest that the social ‘exclusion’ of significant genre experience was determined not only by the classic sexism targets of feminism, but the refractions of popular music by new technology. Explored below, these are described as institutional driven rock-press computerisation; moral panic reportage; and video monopoly. Based on ideas from Baudelaire to Bataille, such shifts are haunted by Baudrillardian ‘evil’ or demonisation of women (‘Lilith’). Whether already noted as industry/culture problems of ‘production’ (Negus, 1998), or ‘commodification’ by the male ‘producer/record company/music business’ (Stras, 2010: 3) this sexed nexus also facilitates the first female genre of popular music.

I bought her a full length Barbie silver fox,

But she just lies in her Barbie box

                     ‘Barbie’ – Shower Scene From Psycho, 1986

 

1 Rock-press computerisation: speak no evil

Founded on the ‘existence of valuable relationships’, Bradshaw argues that ‘social capital does not seem to be particularly related to poverty, possibly because the poor have more time to maintain them’ (2004: 184). Cultural industry data shows that most ‘genre’ pop artists live on low incomes in semi-poverty, buoyed by a successful ‘star system’,[5] comprised of marketing formats to counter unpredictable sales. However, the raw material of music is exchangeable form, not ‘industrial’ content or ‘consumer’ style. The expert or ‘primary definer’ (Hall et al., 1978) and management or ‘entrepreneur’ (Martinelli, 1994), value-add to these music forms recorded from studio or live performance. In official male-dominated pop decades from the 1950s for example, rock journalism (‘hacks’) in this role credibly claimed to operate outside vested economic or political interests. But since the professionalisation of writing or ‘routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 480) effect of internet technicism (‘hackers’), biopower fragmentation and niche marketing have led to social exclusion and music sales decline (Mathieson, 2006). Factors perpetuating a homosocial trend of ‘exclusion of femininity from rock’ (Davies, 2001).

Both the ‘corporate strategy’ focused concept of Indie genres (Hesmondhalgh, 1999), and academic ‘theory’ of genres (Fabbri, 1980: 6) overlook the creative role of primary definers or cultural intermediaries (Negus, 1999: 18). For Hesmondhalgh, Bourdieu’s ‘cultural intermediary’ concept is ‘confusing and unhelpful’ (2007: 67). Harley and Botsman’s ‘No payola and the cocktail set’ examined this function in the heyday of a pre-internet, extra-institutional and under-theorised rock-press (1982). After three decades of rock’n’roll genres, the 1980s academic finally itemised this journalistic discourse of ‘hacks’ as downplaying the ideological and commercial outcomes of popular music writing in terms of airplay, sales and popularity (‘historicising, idolising and posing’). For these researchers, the Sex Pistols were approved on ‘tactical’ grounds, unlike romantic ‘Punk’ recycling charismatic ideology of race-music Rockabilly and vitalism Psychedelia. Punk hagiography only repeated this personality cult logic of the 1950s and 1960s. Ensuing 1980s Post-Punk parent versus subculture readings were also seen as trapped ‘within an overworked and useless construction of power’ (1982: 252). However, Harley and Botsman’s reservation about an entrepreneur rock-press is finally offset by the self-conscious reflexive method of Londoners Paul Morley and Ian Penman. In journalism similar to Australian Craig N. Pearce or American Lester Bangs, this rock-writer-as-intellectual as its vital media illusion preceded the internet techicism Diaspora.

According to sociology, ‘the weakening of the role of the innovative entrepreneur is seen as a basic factor, although not the only one, of the crisis of capitalism’ (Martinelli, 1994: 479). Conversely, cultural studies visualise the role of institutional ‘primary definer’ as ultimately vested by, ‘branches of the state and its fields of operation – through the formal separation of powers; in the communications field it is mediated by the protocols of balance, objectivity and impartiality’ (Hall et al., 1978: 220). With a variable supply of social capital, stringer to freelance rock-press journalism shuttled between these commercial entrepreneur to state primary definer roles. ‘Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read’ (Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 1990: 221). Recognised as its highpoint, the contrasting 1980s reflexive rock-press ushered in, ‘the progressive decay of the entrepreneurial function by virtue of the routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 478-9). Although trivialised as ‘thin cultural studies’ (Beilharz, 1995: 133) and ‘the cultural turn’ (de la Fuente, 2007: 120), while it lasted, the professionalisation transition that succeeded this flashy journalism did actually deliver some valuable insights into popular music.[6]

Rather than ‘romantic Punks’ or ‘parent versus subculture’, with ‘increasing reliance on “expert” opinion’, today’s ‘professional’ tends to overlook the ‘popular consciousness’ (Abbot-Chapman, 2007: 242). Opposite of the ‘sociologism’ that claims a ‘genre community’ is ‘always…conscious of their precise role in musical reality’ (Fabbri, 1980: 6), this rock-press devaluation thwarts participants from self-defining their primary knowledge based on lived experience. Thus routinised female music goes ‘unreported in the [rock] press’ (Bayton, 1998: 78):

Barbie Rock! Very good – what’s that? – Caroline Kennedy, Dead Star (Hex)

Sure, if they want to call it Barbie Rock, then call it Barbie Rock! – Ian Meldrum, journalist (Hex)\

In the 1990s, the professionalisation or ‘bureaucratisation’ (Brett, 1991) of writing was driven by an internet technicist computerisation overseen by university research. Unlike New Zealand, Australian sociology is university centred (Germov and McGee, 2005). Bayton refers to radio Disc Jockeys as the significant rock‘n’roll gatekeeper. But the ‘hegemonic’ male journalism she identifies (1998: 3) is today fuelled by an ex-Cold War internet over-researched as computerisation. On it women are routinely devalued in ‘sexual’ terms. By arguing ‘we can no longer speak Evil’ (or a demonised female music genre), Baudrillard refers to this computerisation (2009: 97). In the above quotes from Caroline or Ian, the effect is validation doubt about a devaluated genre experience (cf. ‘degenerate’ modernist art militarily repressed until 1945 (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1976)). In Australian contemporary journalistic and scholarly studies of rock‘n’roll appearing after Riot Grrrl and Girl Power, the female genre is not acknowledged. The authors paid their dues in the 1990s street press (Mathieson, 2000), 1980s news media (Breen, 1999) and 1970s rock-press (Walker, 1996). While Mathieson joined the corporation, describing the ‘Indie’ music scene interestingly as a ‘Sell In’,[7] Breen and Walker were later to hitch their stars to the university. Contrasting this commercial or institutional cooptation, the new as yet unidentified genre would remain viable if seen ‘as a tacitly condoned mechanism of Subversion and foil to State control’ (Chugg, 1989: 64).

She’s very smart,

She can dance well,
Bang,
bang, bang,

Twist Barbie

’Twist Barbie’ – Shonen Knife, 1992

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

2 Moral panic news: hear no evil

Unlike genetic or animal research for drug based solutions of ‘social inclusion’ (Bonner, 2006: 4), while noting such ‘behaviourist ideological baggage’, Bradshaw argues cogently that ‘social inclusion is not necessarily the opposite of social exclusion – though the emphasis of the state as agent is welcome’ (2004: 184). But like privatisation creep, such interventions can cause social exclusion. For example, Hubert shows how technology is ‘creating a new category of socially excluded children’, also suggesting that ‘people who are medically cured in Western terms may not return’ from ‘social death’ (2000: 3-4). In Australia, this logic is demonstrated by a high-incidence of child abuse in the whole community on the one hand (Herald Sun, 2007); and the indigenous peoples nominated as scapegoat on the other. Clearly such ‘relegation of people to nature’ behaviourism appears a ‘way of legitimating exploitation and exclusion from civilised society’ (Hubert, 2000: 5). The initiating moral panic debuted on television (ABC, 2006) amplified by the press (Age, 2006) then military intervention (Age, 2007), eventually earned under-reported opposition from the UN. Similar disproportionate media reaction was already noted in the mid-90s as, ‘moral panic in response to rock and roll more generally’ (Grossberg, 1995: 368).

Developing the work of Cohen (1973), Hall et al. (1978: 222) frame ‘moral panics’ as a crisis of consent or ‘hegemony’, at times escalating into ‘general panic’ when, ‘all dissensual breaks in the society’ are perceived as threats to ‘law and order’. Media definers, ‘play a crucial but secondary role in reproducing the definitions of those who have privileged access, as of right, to the media as “accredited sources”’ (1978: 58). Two decades later, McRobbie and Thornton argue that subculture and genre ‘marketing strategy’ functions of moral panics are ‘priceless PR campaigns’ (1995: 565). However, unequal readerships of large circulation dailies compared to limited distribution fanzines contradict this thesis. The experience of fanzines, like Polymer, Thunderpussy, or Riot Grrrl is a case in point. Each gained only a small circulation despite huge music chart sales. Yet by including such demonised minority ‘folk devils’, moral panics present a smallest number utilitarian calculus tailored to the ‘biopower’ set theory of primary definers (Foucault, 1981). These xenophobic primary definitions of sex, race, class or age bring ‘life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations’, submitting ‘life integrated into the techniques that govern and administer it’ (1981: 143). McRobbie later refits this ‘biopolitical strategy’ set theory (2007: 730) for post-feminist ‘Top Girls’ to deconstruct revived sexism in Blair’s New Britain. Conversely, ‘Barbie Rock’ is a way of subverting stigmatising stereotypes, like ‘virgin, mother, and prostitute’ (Stras, 2010: 4):

That’s why heavy metal’s become so popular, because it’s tribal. Female rock stars they come and they go, but they never seem to leave a mark – Dr Pepper, journalist (Stone)

I actually agree with you. I think that there is more interesting, the most interesting bands at the moment are either female led or have got girls in them – Justine Frischman, Elastica/Suede (Hex)

The measure of women’s significant success in rock‘n’roll, a female genre was already anticipated as far back as the 1980s. Saxophonist Louise Brooks of critically acclaimed group The Laughing Clowns believed, ‘barring incredible turns to the right, that is a trend that will continue. Quite possibly, women conceptualise differently, but if so, it’s quite invisible’ (Shien, 1987: 84). Yet key events, like a ‘Women in Rock’ issue of Rolling Stone (1997) gave the nod (if seen as ‘pitifully small’ after Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls’ triumph – Stras, 2010: 5) while dodging the genre. In the bigger picture, a ‘social inclusion’ military Intervention on demonised aboriginals (lower socio-economic class ‘social death’ by a discredited ‘race’ scientism) confirm ‘incredible turns to the right’ fears. Unjustly blamed for the larger ‘white’ society in denial. Similarly, media sexism that reduces women musicians, for example to ‘glamour shots’ (Bayton, 1998: 14) deactivates their female popular music genre. The quoted biopolitical doubts of David, Justine and Louise are vindicated. For Baudrillard, the evil demon of media images occurs as a ‘precession’ of the real by models. These ‘invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction’ (1984: 13). For instance, if not for homage to aboriginal Buried Country (Walker, 2000), 1990s Barbie Rock assimilated to 1970s Punk by Australia’s ‘pre-eminent critic and historian’ with inaccuracies like ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’ (Walker, 1996: 280) may also have telescoped his oeuvre into demonisation.

I’m a Barbie girl in the Barbie world,

Life in plastic it’s fantastic

‘Barbie Girl’ – Aqua, 1997

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

3 Video monopoly: see no evil

According to the social theory of Daly and Silver (2008), social capital and social exclusion can be at once opposites (rather than inclusion) and interchangeable; one the antidote (to the other) and both merged into a continuum. Ultimately, ‘social capital may actually increase social exclusion’ (2008: 556). Resisting assimilation, they also retain the distinction between cultural studies (social capital) and sociology (social exclusion). In social practice, Bourdieu’s example of a relational ‘hiatus’ between the ‘statutory expectations’ of déclassé academics with devalued social capital and lack of ‘opportunity’ leading to social exclusion, explains the student unrest of ‘May 1968’ (1988: 163). Baudrillard’s cultural example is the ‘virtual’ music ‘restored to technical perfection’ by excluding ‘noise and static’ that has to reinvest in some noise to restore musical capital (2007: 28). Bayton finds such ‘a relational hiatus’ in Riot Grrrl technophobia of live and studio ‘technical skills’ restored by technophile training (1998: 7). Reynolds and Press similarly describe Riot Grrrl creativity as limited to music ‘content’ that excludes ‘form’ (1995: 187). This polarisation of social exclusion and social capital coheres as the limit of lo fi Riot Grrrl technophobic content, opposed to hi tech Girl Power technophile form and interposed by a relational hiatus of Barbie Rock technical skills. Like ‘social’ media adapted to female ends, the genre of 1990s rock‘n’roll lies here.

The horizon of all popular music, in Jazz (for Riot Grrrl, Tracy Chapman’s roots music) sociologists argue that, ‘objects do not possess sociality, people do, and it is through the embodied nature of inter-subjective human social action that objects come to have contingent relevance’ (Gibson, 2006: 185). Gibson locates this relationship between normative frameworks of performance and limiting parameters of musical instruments, creatively minimised by musicians who reach sufficient degrees of technical facility for improvisation. Contrarily, for cultural studies, ‘the technical mastery of space and time contributes not only to the rationalisation of musical production, but also to the creation of a myth of community’ (Théberge, 1991: 110). Rather than inter-subjectivity, Théberge highlights both the simulation of community through increasing spatial rationalisation of audio material in separation recording, and the star-system driven and cost efficiency control of overdubbing (for Girl Power, Destiny’s Child’s dance music). In this mode, creative improvisation is reconstructed in the studio, refuting the classless ‘myths of technology’ technicism of ‘McLuhanesque’ leftists (1991). Today this digitally anatomised community, when ‘social control’ over women and ‘sexist jokes abound’ (Bayton, 1998: 6), has again been profoundly transformed by, ‘the predominance of music videos in the marketplace’ (Théberge, 1991: 109).

Banks traces the ‘incorporation’ of live and recorded popular music into a video monopolised ‘market place’ back to the arrival of privatised cable channel, MTV (1998: 293). This raised a small 23% percentile of top 100 Billboard acts with videos in 1981 to 97% by 1989 (295). Hesmondhalgh confirms the 1990s transition to a two-dimensional ‘stabilizing pop mainstream oriented towards video promotion, and synergies with visual mass media.’ Like Polymer participants, Indie labels were ‘determinedly against these commercial methods’ (1999: 38) for ‘trivialising them, and dealing with them solely in terms of their physical attractiveness’ (Bayton, 1998: 25):

It’s OK to play music if you’re a beautiful girl, and I felt like it was getting a bit too much of that image – Laura McFarlane, Sleater Kinny/Ninety Nine (Vee)

I think I’d be comfier with ‘Barbie Rock’ if it turned out that really you were talking about the strange new breed of boys that seem to have no hormones and no sperm count – Paul Morley, journalist (Hex)

Reviving 1960s Psychedelic versus 1970s Punk role-set conflict and simulating slick TV advertising, by the 1990s visual clips had replaced live tours as the means of self-promotion, modelled on performance (‘authentic’) and concept (‘synthetic’) formats now feted in annual video awards (Banks, 1998: 295). With privatisation creep prioritising money-making visuals over musical talent (303), the ‘hot’ 3D sound of radio was digitised into ‘cool’ 2D sight of TV, unreceptive to the Barbie Rock limit genres of Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style. Grossberg reads the ‘hip attitude’ of TV as a ‘refusal to take anything…seriously’ (1995: 376), where the ‘explicit conjunction of images and songs seems to multiply the possibilities of interpretation’ (370)[8]. The neutral mood, affect or emotion standing apart from ideas. A neutrality Breen (1999) ascribed to the Girl Power pop of Kylie Minogue, supposedly eclipsed by Midnight Oil’s Brit-Pop style nationalism.[9] ‘Where rock was considered to rely on a set of established practices based on musicianship and a relationship to audience, pop was a disposable image of little lasting value’ (1999: 67). But if TV ‘screens out’ new genres or sexual inequality evils (Baudrillard, 2007: 78), it also facilitated free to air music in Australia. Albeit excluded in late-late night programs, like the ABC’s Rage or ‘youth’ radio JJJ biopower. At least complete ‘commercialisation’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 305) failed to eventuate.

Kids don’t like me,

Moms are mad,

I’m going off the market,

‘Cause I look so sad

’Bitterness Barbie’ – Lunachicks, 1995

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

4 Barbie Rock and sexism: beyond good and evil

Social exclusion is a ‘multidimensional concept’ (Bonner, 2006; Hubert, 2000), that tends to ‘deflect attention from ever-increasing income inequality and class conflict’ (Daly and Silver, 2008: 554) or poor social capital. Poverty measures of ‘physical’ or ‘financial’ capital are enhanced, social exclusion theory argues, by non-participation indicators of ‘discrimination, chronic ill health, geographical location or cultural identification’ (Burchardt et al., 2002: 6). Women own one per cent of ‘physical’ titled land and are seventy per cent of the world’s ‘financial’ poor (MX, 2008)[10], making ‘cultural identification’ (in this case ‘genre’) indicators more relevant, in the context of popular music. Frith (2001: 46) and Hesmondhalgh (2007: 23) define genres as a record label method or ‘format’ for coping with risk. The ‘irrational’ behaviours of audience ‘taste’ or artistic ‘talent’ in the ‘star system’. Similarly Breen (1991: 193-4) refers to a ‘pre-existing system’ of market fact versus authenticity fiction. For Bayton (1998: 15) the ‘objectification of performers’ derives from this ‘star system’ (‘creating product loyalty’ and ‘simplifying promotion’) as ‘another record company strategy to secure profits’. Proof of powerless media in technophile times, Barbie Rock escaped notice because of such ‘cultural’, ‘irrational’, ‘pre-existing’ or ‘loyalty’ factors. Since the 1950s race-culture of Rockabilly and Doo-Wop, 1960s counterculture Psychedelia of Surf to Folk, 1970s subculture Punk fused with Reggae, and 1980s underculture Swamp joined to Hip-Hop, reconciliation of such opposites has defined rock’n’roll. By the 1990s, homieculture Riot Grrrl and Girl Power linked Barbie Rock through a series of ‘answer records’ (a ‘bizarre’ tradition for Dawson and Propes, 1992: 132), like ‘Twist Barbie’, ‘Barbie USA’, ‘Bitterness Barbie’, ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Barbie Be Happy’ and ‘Career Barbie’.[11]

Not without precedent, the bridging phase between the fadeout of Rockabilly in 1959 and British Invasion by 1963 was important for more than Keitley’s sexist reference to a ‘lost spirit of rock‘n’roll’ (2001: 118). This was also a moment of ‘exciting and energetic “girl groups”’ (Gaar, 1992) with chart-topping songs, like The Bobbettes, The Chantels, The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Dixie Cups, The Exciters, The Ronnettes, and The Shirelles. Music primary definers tend to dismiss these ‘in-between years’ of rock‘n’roll, when popular music suffered a supposed ‘near death experience’ (Keitley, 2001: 116; Birch, 1987: 165). Devaluation of female success in ‘monetarily dry’ times hid a reality of controlled artists, withheld royalties and ‘black’ women excluded by secondary definer media (busy re-racialising a newsworthy Watts Riot). The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance showcased both a ‘white’ 1950s Elvis and 1960s Beatles. ‘Radio may have been colour blind but television was not: none of the black girl groups of the early ‘60s appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show no matter how many hits they had, whereas a minor contender like Britain’s Cliff Richard, who had only two U.S. Top 40 hits at the time, appeared three times’ (Gaar, 1992: 51). So much for confident claims that ‘rock and roll has always been on television’ (Grossberg, 1995: 371).

Viewed in this way, while Stras concedes ‘the genre’s seemingly contradictory historic importance as a fostering ground for feminine and racial equality’ (2010: 21), the Girl Groups of enlightened scholarship based on biopolitical race, class, age or sexual identities seem to reiterate an ‘evil’ problematic of mistaking effects for causes (Baudrillard, 1984: 13). Stras’ assent to agist ‘rites of passage’ from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’, for example leaves her idea of ‘adolescence’, now complicit with ‘adult’ moral panic, open to charges of propaganda for the very sexual inequality evils that she criticises. Launched during this Girl Group era and seen as the paradigm ‘of young girls’ aspirations and fantasies’, Barbie™ the doll ‘embodied a fixed ideal of emerging womanhood for the English-speaking world’ (2010: 15). This identity neutral ‘respectability’ was an unattainable norm. Stras argued that the only option open to Girl Groups was to ‘dissemble’ their nature. Pretending to do/think one thing, while actually doing/thinking another (2010: 19). Much later, a plastic era of Riot Grrrl lo fi, Girl Power hi tech or Barbie Rock technical skills emerges to decode that ‘essentialised myth of woman tied to nature’ (Toffoletti, 2007: 79).

Surpassing 1960s Girl Group success and sexist discrimination on a larger scale over a longer period, the 1990s saw another social exclusion of the new female Heavy Metal meets Girl Group emergent style. Increasingly eclipsed by new technology and over-invested ‘poor chic’ cinema, MTV-centric privatised ‘cable’ television shifted music priorities from audio to telegenic visuals. Homan (2007) and Mathieson (2000) note how less profitable radio turned to ‘standardised playlists’, while record companies kept to the research based ‘objective repertoires’ of 1980s Rap or 1970s Punk. Yet the female counter-practice, registered in both chart success and innovation, spanned Olympia’s early self-misspelt ‘Riot Grrrl’[12] to ‘Girl Power’ global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ by Denmark’s Aqua. A ‘homie’ (cf. Hip Hop curfew neologism, ‘homegirl’) glocalised genre cross-section would include the popular success of Aqua, Breeders, Cardigans, Cub, Destiny’s Child, Donnas, Echobelly, Elastica,[13] Killing Heidi, Shonen Knife, Skunk Anansie, Spice Girls, Superjesus and Tiddas. Male bands could only offer passé feeding contexts (Nirvana, Pixies, Suede, Living Color) of retro subgenres, such as Punk-Metal,[14] Grunge or Britpop. But if the experience was certain, like Punk, dissensus not consensus was a norm for many participants:

No, evil ha ha…I have a big problem with females in music at the moment, if you’re talking about your, in my eyes, Barbies – Ella Hooper, Killing Heidi (Hex)

The ‘Barbie’ part I can see, the horror [Heavy Metal] I don’t – there is psychological horror, but I think horror is the wrong word to put on it…terror is more like it – Greil Marcus, journalist (Hex)

‘Specular’ (Irigaray, 1985) Riot Grrrl’s many Heavy Metal cover-versions allocated bands like Heart, the Runaways and Girls School as significant influences, disturbing this alleged misogynist boysclub genre with intuitive ‘cool grrrls’.[15] Going further, Girl Power ‘overmimed’ media secondary definitions, untying the definitive gaze of MTV clips with a reflexive awareness that ‘to define “woman” is necessarily to essentialise her’ (Moi, 1985: 139; Straw, 2001; and coolgrrrls.com, 1998). A presentation of self, like symbolic interactionist stigma logic (Goffman, 1979), rock’n’roll genre formation from 1950s ‘Rockabilly’ (variant of hillbilly), 1960s ‘Psychedelia’ (mental hallucinations), 1970s ‘Punk’ (prison putdown), and 1980s ‘Swamp’ (country urbanism) to 1990s ‘Barbie’ (plastic female) displaced and reversed a once mild pejorative term.[16] Hebdige traces this progression back to inverted labelling of ‘black’, ‘funk’, ‘superbad’ and ‘jazz’ (1980: 62-3). Sensing the very real community demand for a subversive female genre in 1998, Rock’n’roll Highschool recording studio’s Stephanie Bourke suggested, ‘it would be great if someone could bring us all together…the scene is definitely there for it’ (Polymer ‘Stone’: 15). While rarely recognised by media secondary definers, pop culture slang and entrepreneur primary definitions do occasionally transmute into mass genre accreditation. Subcultures seeking publicity or ‘street cred’ are criticised for cultivating moral panic (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 572). Even Barbie™ doll copyright holder Mattel Corp, after unsuccessful litigation against Aqua (The Beat, 1997), now capitalise with authorised Barbie Party Mix CDs. Yet as Elastica discovered, ‘intellectual property rights are the motor driving much of the music business’ (Breen, 1999: 70).[17] According to Baudrillard, translation of evil (or sexual demonisation) into mere ‘misfortune’ can lead to, ‘a whole culture of misfortune, of recrimination, repentance, compassion and victimhood’ (2007: 145).

In the industry of romance,

New ways to enhance,

Her beauty,

My little doll,

Beauty comes from the soul

‘Barbie Be Happy’ – Essential Logic, 1998

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

5 Dissent: the compact disc

‘Of crucial importance’ to a sociology of rock, album reviews ‘seek simultaneously to provide a consumer guide, to comment on a culture, and to explore personal tastes’ (Frith, 2001: 174). In terms of a consumer guide’, Straw suggests, ‘the genre as the context within which records were meaningful accompanied the rise of the “serious” record review’. That ‘generic economy’, drawn according to Straw from ‘film criticism’ important to academia (2001: 103), might also be traced to Jazz writing. But because ‘most journalists are male’ reviewers, Bayton argues that ‘a hegemonic masculine view tends to predominate in the music press’ (1998: 3). Her comment on the culture’ notes 1990s music as, ‘a genuine female youth subculture with the explicit aim of moving in all areas of the rock world’ (3). A ‘lucky researcher in the right time and place’ (Negus, 1999: 29), I[18] too discovered ‘an attempt was made to create an organised network amongst all-girl bands, via fanzines’ (Bayton, 1998: 75). This distinguished Barbie Rock from the genre symbiosis of Heavy Metal for which, Straw (2001) argues, ‘audiences do not constitute a musical subculture’. Conversely, Metal’s devotion to rock‘n’roll cover versions (rebutting ‘consistent noninvocation of rock history/mythology’ charges – 102-3) is consolidated by the Grrrls own genuine delight in Metal covers. With such reference groups of Punk-Metal cementing Riot Grrrl to Girl Power, exploring personal tastes’ in the 1990s amounts to Barbie Rock Invasion of ‘the most male dominated of rock forms’ (109).

 

Yeah, I mean I’m not familiar with the Linoleum LP you’re talking about, so I can’t really comment on that – John Peel, journalist (Hex)

Barbie Rock?! Hahahaha…tell me, which exponents of Barbie Rock do you feature? – Caroline Finch, Linoleum (Vee)

As the title suggests, Linoleum’s first album (1997) is sexed dissent to rock’n’roll mythology. Summing-up Barbie Rock, singer Caroline Finch says, ‘Dissent is a different way of looking at things, and it’s a different way of song-writing and bringing up things that other people know but don’t usually bring up from a female perspective’ (Finch, 1999: 35). Linoleum encountered the same obstacle course experienced by more high-profile groups, like Elastica (settling out of court with flattered Punk bands, Wire and The Stranglers). ‘We had problems in Australia certainly because another band called “Linoleum” showed up out of the blue…I think they’d put a single out a while before us, and they started demanding huge amounts of money from us for our name. So I know we had quite a lot of difficulty in Australia getting press and things, because we recently weren’t really allowed to be called Linoleum out there. That was a bit of problem. Yeah I think the industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment’ (34). Riot Grrrls were also banned by popular music media (recalling a blanked out Sex Pistols at No. 1) for manifestos, ejected male slam dancers or heckler abuse texta scrawled on bodies. ‘I wonder, I mean there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage of female bands.’ Yes, the rock-press also practise social exclusion of music.

Musically, Linoleum’s Barbie Rock vector surrounded Caroline’s cutesy high-pitch to contralto vocals, delivered as rapping Girl Power overmime segués into room tipping specular Riot Grrrl in 4/4. An under-rated lead guitarist for these unidentified times, musician Paul Jones’ high-action manoeuvring wrung out the Heavy Metal power chord with duck walk riffs, surf licks, and free-form feedback. ‘Paul’s got a good set of new pedals and things, so there’s some interesting sounds on our new stuff. But they’re still coming out of the guitar, even if they don’t sound like it. I think that Paul’s particularly good at playing his guitar so that it doesn’t sound like a guitar sometimes. He plays not exactly in a traditional way, so I think that’s how come we get those results’ (34). Caroline’s rhythm converging on Paul’s created the classic dynamic duo of rock’n’roll guitars, only interrupted by Dave’s snap to deep rumble drum or Grunge fuzz faithful bass of Emma. A white noise, wall of sound energy that, ‘takes power out of the hands of the dangerous people…and puts it back into the people who are being creative.’

American producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (also veterans of Hole and The Pixies) engineered and mixed in multi-layered studio flow a creation upgraded to vinyl quality audio depth. The Erik Nitschean-style Mod red, white and blue sleeve design, backed with fresco secco group miniatures, was initially packaged in real lino. ‘The fact that it’s quite tacky and it’s…I love linoleum because it’s not what it appears to be. Especially when it looks like a very glamorous floor and it’s not. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our records that are packaged in linoleum? We didn’t make that many of them. Ever since we first started up all our flyers, and our first singles were actually packaged in floor covering, which is quite fantastic.’ (37). Track listings for this floored Barbie Rock genius explored matters of masochist masquerade [‘Marquis’], alienation shock [‘Dissent’], risk chic [‘Dangerous Shoes’], social snobbism [‘On a Tuesday’], remote control [‘Restriction’], substance abuse [‘She’s Sick’], post-modern angst [‘Unresolved’], and ad hominem [‘Smear’]. ‘It’s certainly a view of dysfunctional relationships, there’s a questioning of things that don’t work, and I find all these kind of issues more interesting’ (35).

Yeah I wanna be like her,

Ride the bus in my underwear

’Career Barbie’ – The Kowalskis, 2002

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Concluding remarks

Recent music research on sexed subgenre revolutions has examined both Riot Grrrl (Schilt, 2004) and Girl Power (Martin, 2006; Strong, 2007). But this is the first to recognise their interconnection as phases in the key 1990s genre of Barbie Rock, while avoiding assimilation to established genres (but see Riley, 1994; Lumby, 1998; Chugg, 2005). The unidentified factors (Parts 1-3 above) behind social exclusion and social capital until now pre-empting full recognition as a popular music genre are, in a word (detected earlier by Hesmondhalgh), ‘technicism’. In this gatekeeper scenario, 1) a ‘computerisation’ of cultural intermediaries like rock-press hacks succeeded by primary definer world-wide web hackers, 2) accompanied by secondary definer media ‘moral panic’ implosion, and 3) 3D radio freeze-frame to 2D ‘video dominated’ freeze-out (if not ‘cool’), overshadows the all but not seen and not heard infant terrible genre. Technology has ‘inhibited creativity’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 88). However, whether at odds with fashionable iconoclastic slogans like, ‘down with genres’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 17), this new technology has also empowered creativity. As the very fact of Barbie Rock demonstrates (Toffoletti, 2007).

Yet there is another tendency, apparently inescapable in even the most enlightened works of men, at times unheard by women (Part 4). The men are easy to find (check out Lester Bangs’ ‘Back Door Man and Women in Bondage’). But when Reynolds and Press portray Riot Grrrl’s Huggy Bear ‘in full awareness of its connotations’ as ‘“asking for it”’ (1995: 331). Or female Bayton argues a Girl Power audience would be, ‘only too delighted to give her [Courtney Love] an ironic f***’ (1998: 79), a sense that such projective hysteria stems from internalised sexism is hard to avoid. In that case, men who ‘determine the marketplace’ (Stras, 2010: 4) are uncontested (but see Part 5) rivalling ‘evil speaking evil’ or evil speaking good (including my mere maleness?) noted by Baudrillard (2010: 39). The theory of evil is a leitmotif for ‘the conspiracy of art’ or demonisation of Barbie Rock. In this ‘obstacle race’ of unsung female artists, indicating a ‘social exclusion’ by the arts, the ‘impotent’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 122) hysteria of male ‘rape’ appears the most fitting explanatory metaphor because, ‘it is no longer decency that is threatened with violation, but sex, or rather sexist idiocy, “which takes the law into its own hands”’ (122).[19] Nevertheless, as even their Satanic Majesties, The Rolling Stones signify with their latest best of Grrr, the lived experience of rock’n’roll – from Riot Grrrl to Girl Power – lives on in the music of Barbie Rock.

Most people would look at it as sarcastic right now; cause like no one really talks about it in the genuine sense anymore, even though I love mine – Donna A, The Donnas (Hex)

 

Acknowlegements: Thanks to Jo Grant from NEIS [New Enterprise Incentive Scheme]; Stephanie Bourke of Rock n roll Highschool; Jacqueline Gallagher at Monash University. Also special thanks to Farrago [University of Melbourne], and Rabelais [Latrobe University] for supporting Polymer.

 

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Notes

[1] A song by Captain Beefheart, ‘Rock’n’roll’s Evil Doll’ (1974) encapsulates male fear of women in music for even the most enlightened artist.

[2] Riot Grrrl is an ‘underground feminist punk rock movement’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot_grrrl) according to Wikipedia; whereas Girl Power, ‘as a term of empowerment, expressed a cultural phenomenon of the 1990s and early 2000s’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/girl_power).

[3] Ten per cent of national income redistributed from labour to capital (Frankel, 2001: 24).

[4] Quotations are from Polymer back-issues: News (1998), Stone (1998), Inner City (1998), Thing (1998), Vee (1999) and Hex (2000-1).

[5] ‘It’s always useful to remember…that the history of popular music is really traced through the losers rather than the winners, because there are far more of those’, says John Peel (Hex, 2000-1: 30)

[6] For outstanding cultural studies typical of this period, see Grossberg (1984); Straw (2001); and Brophy (1987).

[7] See also Hesmondhalgh (1999: 36) on ‘sell out’ and ‘burn out’.

[8] See Chugg (2007)

[9] Alternately:

Australian avant garde rock then, starts and finishes with the fact that the people born and/or living in Australia make Australian avante garde rock. But such a subcategory carries no mysterious subcultural traits that can differentiate its content and substance from avant garde rock around the world. It is no wonder that groups from Seattle, Brussells, Cornwall, Vancouver and Canberra can provide remarkably similar work without ever having heard each other’s work, simply by plugging into the same historical sources and references from both the histories of art and rock. As in so many instances, “Australianism” might work as a qualification but not a description – (Brophy 1987, pp. 140-1)

[10] I argue that the concept of ‘social exclusion’ retains relevance in cultural contexts.

[11] By Shonen Knife (Japan, 1992), Gloo Girls (USA, 1994), The Lunachicks (USA, 1995), Aqua (Denmark, 1997), Essential Logic (UK, 1998) and The Kowalskis (USA, 2002), respectively. (Now even crossing-over to Country, with Unknown Hinson’s ‘Barbie Q’, and Jack Ingram’s ‘Barbie Doll’)

[12] For ‘grrl’ or ‘grrrl’ spelling, see Raphael (1995: xxiii).

[13] Destiny’s Child was the most successful US female group; Elastica’s album became the fastest selling debut in the UK, et cetera.

[14] Contrasting Punk, Straw highlights Heavy Metal’s ‘triumph of craft production…“empty” virtuosity and self-indulgence’ (2001: 100).

[15] Barbie Rockers covering Heavy Metal include: Babes from Toyland, Baby Animals, The Breeders, Belly, The Cardigans, The Clouds, Concrete Blonde, The Corrs, Daphne and Celeste, The Donnas, Lita Ford, Fur, L7, Linoleum, Ninety Nine, Nitocris, Rebeccas Empire and Superjesus.

[16] For another commodity research double entendre, see Ritzer’s (2004) ‘McDonaldisation’ (itself labelled ‘McWeberian’).

[17] A well-known example is Girl Group, the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ plagiarised by ex-Beatle George Harrison – later disclaimed by Chiffons members citing label legal pressures (see also Rimmer, 2007: 40-53).

[18] A mere male.

[19] In this context, ‘sexist idiocy’ is determined by technicism: ‘has not rape perhaps become the unacknowledged by-product of a technological emergency that is becoming routinised?’ (Virilio, 2005: 70)

 

 

Biographical Note: Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne, with recent research appearing in publications like Continuum, Refractory, and Meanjin.

Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer – Kyle R. McDaniel

Abstract: This study analyzes the aesthetic content and user-generated feedback of fan-appropriated film trailers exhibited in on the Internet. The aim of this research is to gauge participatory culture’s involvement in the transformation of promoting archival motion pictures on the Internet. This research study looks to fan trailers as unique media entities that exist as visually empowered narratives created through specific acts of fandom. Specifically, this study investigates the audiovisual and discursive elements of competing trailers for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). The findings suggest that fan trailers are capable of generating myth and nostalgia for aging motion picture properties through user-generated acts. The broader goal of this project is to understand the relationship between participatory film cultures and studio-controlled motion picture content available on video streaming and sharing media channels.


Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Fig. 1: The memorable and Biblically referential swarm of locusts in the film Days of Heaven.

Introduction: Trailers at a Turning Point

A YouTube video by an unknown director can suddenly blow up on the marketplace, and there will be three studios bidding for it. (Without having yet met the director!)…Maybe execs are busy watching YouTube instead of hearing pitches. Our work is virtual.   

-Lynda Obst, Sleepless in Hollywood (2013, 27).

In April 2014, an online user released a high-definition film trailer on YouTube for David Fincher’s forthcoming thriller, Gone Girl (YouTube 2014a). Several hours after the trailer’s debut, an impressive 186,000 fans had accessed the content with 276 of that number contributing written feedback to the message board on the webpage. While film fans were sharing interest and excitement for the trailer on YouTube, News Corp., the media entity that financed Gone Girl through 20th Century Fox, perceived a threat of digital piracy. The following day, the conglomerate removed the trailer and the fan commentary. In the absence of this content, News Corp. left a statement reading, “FOX has blocked [the trailer] on copyright grounds” (YouTube 2014b). This incident is representative of the contemporary state of affairs between media conglomerates with a controlling interest in motion pictures and film fans in online spaces. The presence of film trailers on the Internet presents a specific set of issues for both parties as well, especially in relation to film marketing and promotion, in addition to content ownership and control over copyright.

This study engages with how film fans interact with once-profitable motion picture properties through fan trailers on the Internet. Here, the fan trailer is defined as the act of re-editing and re-exhibiting abridged film content through online channels. Fan trailers are realized through specific and largely collective acts of user-participation, and have the potential to revitalize interest in aging film properties. This article explores the audiovisual and content-related aspects of fan trailers in comparison to a distributor-owned trailer for Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick 1978). Furthermore, the feedback or commentary on message boards is also investigated as part of this research project to locate how such discourse speaks to the collective memory of Hollywood archives. In order to understand the issues surrounding the emergence and popularity of the broad spectrum of Internet trailers, this study looks to literature on the relationship between the evolution and of fan involvement with digital cinema and new media, as well as scholarship on the history of film trailers and film promotion and advertising. The findings from this article suggest that fan trailers play a crucial role in continuing the lifespan of aging Hollywood properties or archival films. The proliferation of fan trailers through video streaming and sharing websites as well as the message board commentary suggests that fan participation is instrumental to building relationships between film and viewer. In turn, participatory cultures that interact with older film titles in online channels incorporate aspects of their public and private selves as part of this creative process. The following research questions are designed to further explore this relationship between film fans inhabiting online spaces and the evolving state of fan trailers in digital cinema: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Fig. 2: A black-and-white still of Terrence Malick on the set of the film.

Film Promotion in the Digital Age: New Strategies, New Rules

For much of the 2000s, Hollywood was reluctant to promote film content through online channels for fear of losing theatrical and home video revenue (Sickels 2011a). The film industry seemed confused by the ever-growing presence of the Internet and related online technologies for film exhibition. But to effectively reach a global audience, the studios and their parent media conglomerates were eventually forced to adapt to the changing media landscape. As Sickels (2011) stated: “Deals with Netflix and the like are only going to delay the inevitable…Audiences don’t want to wait, and they certainly won’t when their only reason for having to do so is an artificial time structure concocted by the studios…”(145). By the second decade of the century, the industry’s fears had become a reality, with on-demand film and television viewing radically altering the industry.

Scholars have pointed to the different complexities of film marketing in the digital age and the associated challenges for the U.S. film industry (e.g., Cunningham and Silver 2013). In Perren’s (2010) words, “A wide range of economic, cultural, political, and formal factors are at play; different entities have distinctive stakes in online distribution” (77).  In other words, films with a greater potential to appeal to a global audience receive preferential treatment from media conglomerates, as well as promoters, marketers, and distributors. With video-on-demand (VOD) revenue climbing steadily since 2010, the studios are looking to different methods for advertising motion pictures beyond the more traditional formats, which includes one-sheets of film posters and theatrical and television spots (Roxborough 2013). Film trailers on the Internet are a viable option in this evolving landscape. The Internet Movie Database and YouTube are the most frequently visited websites supporting online film trailers, with both entities supporting numerous trailers for new releases and older Hollywood titles. In effect, the spectrum of film trailers on the Internet presents a number of potential issues for the film industry. Trailers, historically controlled by studios for advertising and publicity purposes, are increasingly pirated by outside entities. One scholar argues that film industry insiders are the ones largely responsible for leaking studio-controlled content online, with the availability of illegal anti-encryption and watermarking software to bypass copyright restrictions playing a role as well (Bettig 2008, 200-201). Since the release of the DVD De-Content Scramble System (DeCSS) in 2002, film content has been descrambled and decoded for public access and use, despite the studios efforts to control motion picture content (Litman 2002).

Film fans, however, have argued that such laws overwhelmingly favor those with a financial stake in motion picture properties, thereby inhibiting individual and collective acts of creative expression (Boyle 2008). As such, studio-backed restrictions have resulted in more frequently cited instances of pirated motion pictures as well as an upsurge in websites devoted to streaming and downloading studio-owned film content (Sterbenz 2014). Scholars and journalists reporting on the film industry have addressed some of these issues in relation to film trailers. For instance, Rothman (2014) discussed how theatrical trailer standardization discourages user interactivity. Tolson (2010) reported that fan participation with film content suggests an increase in technological “play” that disrupts the traditional model of media production to consumption. Others have looked at how trailer “mobility” is encouraged in a cross-platform media environment, and the effects of contemporary trailer length and message on the viewer (see Franich 2013; Johnston 2008). While many of the issues surrounding film promotion in online spaces remain unanswered, trailers continue to serve as a primary marketing tool for motion picture studios and their parent conglomerates. Fan involvement with film trailers is a burgeoning area of contemporary film marketing and new media, but scholarship on this subject is lacking. Therefor, how participatory cultures connect to older film titles in online spaces through the fan trailer remains an unexplored avenue of study for cinema and media scholars.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Fig. 3: The film’s main titles are appropriately positioned in the concluding seconds of the Paramount Movie’s YouTube-exhibited trailer.

Trailers in Transition: A Brief History and Contemporary Definitions

The most time-honored marketing strategy for film promotion is the movie trailer, commonly referred to as the “preview.” Kernan (2009) traced the genealogy of film trailers to 1919, citing the National Screen Service (NSS) as the first unified company responsible for creating these advertising spots. The author asserts that the evolution of the film industry during the 20th century affected changes in the types of motion pictures produced, thereby altering the aesthetics and meta-messages of trailers in the ensuing decades. A transition in film marketing occurred during the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s, with a rise in independent filmmaking, an upsurge of art-house theaters, and eventually, the summer blockbuster. During these decades, films trailers debuted on network television in thirty-second spots, visually supported by moments lifted from the film, and complete with the now-familiar and once-prominent voice-of-God narration. By the contemporary era, trailers had become “unique form[s] of narrative film exhibition, wherein promotional discourse and narrative pleasure are conjoined (whether happily or not)” (Kernan 2009b, 1). In essence, this period saw the rise of distinct promotional film advertisements alongside the audience’s familiarity and ability to detect such media forms.

Scholars regard the modern film trailer as both complex and historically shifting media type. A leading scholar on the history and transition of motion picture trailers suggests that these forms are specifically targeted, easily recognizable visual media that are created to capture, direct, and guide viewer attention (Wyatt 1994). Today, both media entities and online film fans aid in determining trailer standards and audiovisual elements. Trailers are guided by audiovisual messages through structured narratives to connect with the largest number of viewers through multi-platform distribution. Some have argued that film trailers in the digital era are defined by their dynamic if fleeting presence, asserting that contemporary trailers are forced to compete with other media forms to encourage audience-driven participation or feedback (see Rombes 2009a). Smartphones and digital tablets indicate an increase in trailer mobility and interactivity on behalf of audiences, who are receiving different media in shorter, eye-catching bursts (Grainge 2011).  Scholars have also argued that the efforts of fans on the Internet extend film capital beyond traditional home video or cable and network replay through film mashups or distributing abridged content (e.g., Sickels 2011c; Hoyt 2010a). Tyron (2009) traced the inception of the digital movie trailer to a fan preview for The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980) that gained Internet traction the same year as the inception of YouTube. According to the author, the fan trailer was an outgrowth of DVD culture “that allowed viewers to recognize that texts were ready to be ripped apart and reassembled in playful new ways” (151). Lazzarato (2006) described these types of fan creations as influential because they are “activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion” (132). In sum, film fans use popular film properties to engage with and further promote such content to a wider range of consumers.

Re-appropriating and exhibiting film content is oftentimes understood as a group effort. Rose (2012a) argues that the cyclical discourse that occurs in online social networks encourages is what engages users to interact with film properties. Citing Avatar (James Cameron 2009) and The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson 2001-2003) trilogy as examples, the author maintains that a strong and relatable narrative or story is of the key to fan involvement. According to Rose, online visual narratives must be able to entertain as well as challenge participant-viewers, thereby encouraging individuals to take part in the creative act (233). Through user-participation and online media channels, the modern film trailer appears in transition. In an environment increasingly dominated by new media platforms and social networking, video-sharing websites are stimulating the development of relationships among social actors.

Defining Participatory Cultures and Digital Cinema

Participation raises the question of whose story is it? And, the answer I think is, it’s all of ours. In order to really identify with the story, in some way we have to make it our own.

-Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion (2012b).

­

Online users are now affecting many aspects of the motion picture industry and most recently, have turned to collaborative involvement with film trailers. Through an increasing number of video streaming and sharing websites, fans are producing and exhibiting short and hybrid motion picture forms from existing film content. Jenkins (1992) defined networked individuals who engage with and repurpose existing media materials as members of participatory cultures. These persons “speak from a position of collective identity, forge an alliance with a community of others in defense of tastes which…cannot be read as totally aberrant or idiosyncratic” (23). The author attributed the roots of this phenomenon to fan communities that built up around popular television programs, such as Star Trek, and who communicated and bonded through sharing information at conventions and fan clubs. More recently, Jenkins (2006a) has adapted his definition to include new media and social networking. Although optimistic about the endeavors of participatory cultures, Jenkins has noted the drawbacks of these communities as well, including the shifting power dynamics of group members and the involvement of corporate entities. In addition, the author has described the illegal activities of some members of participatory cultures, specifically those parties who undermine media conglomerates through acts of digital piracy and copyright infringement. Jenkins (2006b) has also commented on the burgeoning relationship between participatory cultures and digital cinema:

[I see] media fans as active participants…seeing their cultural products as an important aspect of the digital cinema movement. If many advocates of digital cinema have sought to democratize the means of cultural production and distribution to a broader segment of the general public then the rapid proliferation of fan-produced Star Wars films may represent a significant early success story for that movement (551-552).

In other words, the upsurge in digital cinema is dependent on fans in much the same way that fans are dependent upon interacting with cinematic creations. Digital cinema, as such, is oftentimes described as an outgrowth of online fan participation. Rombes (2009b) claims that collective acts of nostalgia, personal expression, and the adaptation of new technologies play a role in shaping digital cinema. Beginning with the rise of digital video and cinematography in the mid-1990s, the author discusses an additional factor in the relationship between digital cinema and the actions of participatory cultures: “There is a tendency in digital media – and cinema especially – to reassert imperfection, flaws, an aura of human mistakes to counterbalance the logic of perfection that pervades the digital” (Rombes 2009c, 2). In consideration with Rose’s (2012) insistence on powerful storytelling, Rombes argues that digital cinematic forms are generated and desirable because of factors such as pixilation and noise, which appear to mirror human imperfections. While fan intervention in existing film content raises questions for the future of digital cinema and a general understanding of what constitutes motion picture archives, participatory cultures have contributed to film marketing and promotion since the late 1990s. According to Erickson (2009a), who studied Internet film campaigns for The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez 1999) and others, studios appropriate fan-based advertising strategies if fan efforts prove financially successful.  This article is concerned with how participatory cultures repurpose and interact with the content of older motion picture titles. The entrance of fan trailers through online video streaming platforms suggests new territory for digital cinema, as well as the possible extension of the lifespan for archived film properties.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Fig. 4: A still image from the opening titles of a student-generated video essay for Days.

Case Study Film: Days of Heaven

Since it was first released, “Days of Heaven” has gathered legends to itself…[it] is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made. Malick’s purpose is not to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss. His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.

-Roger Ebert (1997a).

In the contemporary media marketplace, conglomerates and studios overseeing film distribution and exhibition pay close attention to the role of technologies in film promotion and branding. This is also true when considering how older film titles are released, with potential revenue gained from cable and network television broadcasts, DVD rentals and sales and most recently, VOD. Those with a financial stake in film archives oftentimes publicize and rerelease only a select number of dated film titles per year, with those properties having the most commercial potential regarded as particularly valuable on the marketplace. While some noteworthy and popular motion picture titles are available for little-to-no pay through video-sharing online services, media conglomerates use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, for instance, to promote their most commercially viable films. It is here that the role of participatory culture and the evolution of the fan trailer in the archival value of film properties must be taken into consideration. Days of Heaven is significant because of its longstanding popularity amongst fans, its continual re-emergence in the public arena, and its location in cinematic history. Malick’s film arrived at a turning point in the New Hollywood of the 1970s. The competition between fledgling studio productions and a burgeoning independent film movement marked much of the decade’s releases (see Thompson and Bordwell 2010; Biskind 1998, et. al.). “But by the late 1970s,” Thomson (2012) writes, “there began to be fewer grown-up pictures meant to disturb and provoke” (459).

Before and after its release, Days of Heaven was considered an oddity for Paramount Pictures, a none-too-profitable feature that rested on the short reputation of its filmmaker.[1] Malick spent his early years in Hollywood penning several projects for other directors until his first feature-length film, Badlands (Terrence Malick 1973), gained traction from both audiences and critics, garnering a reputation as the second Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967). Patterson (2007) said Malick’s film offered the director the chance to “work outside more conventional parameters” (28). The filmmaker’s follow-up, however, was grander in scope and presented to audiences as a thematic American period piece. Set in the Great Plains of the 1910s, the narrative focused on a romantic amongst two migrant workers and a land baron. Morrison and Schur (2003) described Days as “wed[ding] Whitman’s poetic ideal of the democratic vista to the interior landscapes of Henry James, with a plot that evokes The Wings of the Dove and ends with a quasi-biblical plague of locusts” (23) [Fig. 1]. Indeed, the locusts were memorable, as was a lengthy scene in which wildfire spreads rapidly across the grasslands, scorching a vast swath of farmland. But much of the film’s storyline involved the happenings of Malick’s starring quartet – Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, and Sam Shepard – with the characters’ muted emotions drawn out in close-ups paired with character voiceover.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Fig. 5: Gere and Adams’s characters traveling atop a railcar with other migrants in the film.

Much of the film’s legend was only realizable years after its release. For one, Malick departed from filmmaking for two decades after Days, leaving a questionable legacy for a motion picture whose long-term stability rested on the director’s reputation and the film’s much-discussed cinematography. Over time, those perfectly composed images of man and nature, or what Kehr (2011) glowingly referred to as, “aesthetic shock effects [that] create vast, harmonious wholes,” were responsible for keeping the film in the minds of journalists and cinephiles (23-24). The film’s cinematography eventually became something of Hollywood lore [Fig. 2]. Ebert (1997b) detailed the infighting between credited director of photography, Nestor Almendros, and his predecessor, the notoriously cantankerous Haskell Wexler, in his “Great Movie” review of the film. Over the years, rumblings over credit for the look and feel of the film have led to a reconsideration of the man responsible for capturing such well-regarded images. In the years since its release, Malick returned to filmmaking and has garnered generally favorable reviews and some commercial success.[2] No fewer than ten book-length volumes are dedicated to the filmmaker’s resurgence, including The Terrence Malick Handbook (Smith 2012), and a number of academic and trade journal entries have surfaced on the canonical worthiness of Days (e.g., Crofts 2001; Woessner 2011; Koehler 2013, et. al.). Not surprisingly, praise and frustration for the film reigns on the Internet as well. The number and popularity of video clips available on video streaming and sharing websites suggests additional enforcement of the scholarly and journalistic discourse devoted to the film as well. While Days remains a much-debated and discussed film more than 35 years after its theatrical release, the role of trailers for the film on the Internet deserves attention in the era of cross-platform film promotion.

Selection of Trailer Case Studies: The Presence of Days of Heaven Online

The “Paramount Movies” channel on YouTube, overseen by Viacom, offers an original trailers for Days of Heaven [Fig. 3]. The Criterion Collection, responsible for marketing and distributing the Blu-ray and HD-DVD versions of the film, also displays an official trailer on its homepage for Days.[3] Mysteriously, Paramount’s trailer has received few visitors on YouTube while Criterion’s showcases an impressive 153 user-generated comments. The seeming randomness of attracting viewers to trailer content in online spaces is represented in this brief comparison, which appears to crossover to fan trailers as well (YouTube 2014c; The Criterion Collection 2014). The volume and popularity of fan trailers and video clips of Days showcased on YouTube overshadows this corporately controlled material in several ways as well. For one, the power of the video sharing website’s status as a social networking outlet is immediately evident. The “WorleyClarence” YouTube channel, for instance, has reposted an official version of Paramount’s trailer with an astonishing 360,000 views and 97 message board posts.[4] “JokerTreePictures,” described as an umbrella channel for three student filmmakers, has created a seven-minute video essay for Days that has gathered significant attention [Fig. 4]. Another YouTube user offers a promotional video compiled from scenes from Days matched with the music of Rod Stewart’s pop single, “Broken Arrow.” The sum of this content, which includes fan-exhibited interviews with the cast and crew as well as scenes lifted from the film, is evidence of the film’s presence on the Internet (YouTube 2014d).

For this study, three trailers were chosen as individual case studies based on the following criteria: 1) the recognizable differences in their audiovisual content, 2) the number of online views (i.e., “hits”), and 3) the number of message board posts or available online feedback. Two fan-appropriated trailers exhibited on YouTube were selected based on these requirements, as was the aforementioned trailer available through The Criterion Collection. The necessity of the trailer selection process was to compare and contrast elements of fan trailers with an official trailer approved by a media outlet in an effort to answer the research questions for this study. Many trailers that did not meet the research criteria were not selected because of factors such as conflicting content with the selected trailers, a lack of available user-generated discourse on message boards, and/or the number of recorded views or hits online. After completing the selection process, trailers were coded A (“WorleyClarence” YouTube Channel), B (“cnharrison” YouTube Channel), and C (The Criterion Collection), respectively. The researcher conducted individual and comparative audiovisual analyses on trailers A, B, and C and made notes on narrative structure and trailer content. This was followed by a qualitative content analysis of the online commentary or feedback on the message boards for each trailer’s webpage. In effect, the trailer selection process and resulting analyses were guided by the research questions for this study: What are the content-related (i.e., audiovisual) similarities and differences between the distributor-controlled, official trailer and the fan trailers under study? And what role(s) does user-generated commentary or feedback play for these trailers?

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Fig. 6: Adams and Shepard photographed in silhouette, with the symbolic farmhouse looming in the background.

Days of (Online) Fan Trailer Heaven

Trailer A opens with an image of Paramount Pictures’ trademark logo. The studio’s signature emblem fades into an image of brooding clouds looming over a wind-worn prairie. Thunder bellows on the soundtrack, and a shot of a bird of prey morphs into a backlit figure of a man standing in the grasslands at sunset. “In 1916, America was changing,” the narrator says in the trailer’s opening seconds. An image of a railcar passing over a bridge fades into a scene of factory workers digging through heaps of coal, followed by another wide frame of an empty sunbaked wheat field. The viewer is then swept into close-ups of the rough-hewn faces of the film’s stars – Gere, Shepard, and Adams – amidst passing railcars and horse-drawn carriages en route to the barren frontier [Fig. 5]. One minute and fifteen seconds into Trailer A, the serene mood and tone of the narrative changes abruptly. The narrator’s voice states that the film is “the story of a man who had nothing…the woman who loved him…and the man who would give her everything for a share of that love” (YouTube 2014e). With these words, the imagery moves away from the thematic scope of the land and its inhabitants and into the romantic dilemma at the heart of the film. A scene in which Gere’s field hand runs from law enforcement on horseback is juxtaposed with a quieter moment of his character embracing Adams in a quiet meadow. The next shot is an extreme close-up of Shepard’s watchful gaze, as if overseeing these scenes from afar.

As the narrative for Trailer A moves towards its conclusion, Adams and Shepard are photographed in silhouette inside the latter’s large estate, while the bedraggled face of Gere’s character peers up at the duo through a windowpane from below. This moment is framed from Gere’s perspective, with the actor and the encompassing field bathed in the deep blues of a Midwestern dusk, suggesting the loneliness his character will face with the coming of night. The film’s title appears over this closing shot, foreshadowing a troubled outcome for the trio. Trailer A presents much of the entire film’s narrative in under two minutes; what begins as a broad glimpse of turn-of-the-century westward expansion in the U.S. evolves into a minor tale of lost love [Fig. 5]. Thematically, the trailer’s primary audiovisual message suggests a heightening of nostalgia for both the American West and the Hollywood of the late 1970s, with the mythic qualities of innocence and utopia highlighted in the cinematography and production design [Fig. 6]. The professionalism of the editing in Trailer A, including the pairing of shots and sequence evolution provides a seamless story arc. Thus, the inclusion of Paramount’s introductory logo, the ‘70s-era voice-of-God narration, and the production elements suggests that this user-exhibited fan trailer was re-appropriated without revising the original trailer’s content. Therefore, Trailer A is most likely an original trailer for the film repurposed by one or more online fans. Trailer B also provides a visually compelling narrative to signal nostalgia and romanticism for the American West. But here, the viewer is immediately transplanted into to the lives of the film’s primary characters without the broader introduction of the land and its inhabitants as witnessed in Trailer A [Fig. 7].

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

Fig. 7: The film’s use of natural light to emphasize dramatic elements is also highlighted within the trailers.

The opening shot in Trailer B, a striking low-angle image of Gere, Adams, and the younger Manz running to catch a moving train, introduces the film’s predominant family dynamic.[5] Next is a shot of moving railcars topped with migrant travelers that segue into multiple close-ups of these characters’ hardened faces. Already, the viewer is guided toward the themes of travel and migration. The following image shows the Gere, Adams, and Manz trio atop one of the railcars, amidst the masses, fleeing the East for better opportunities. The rest of Trailer B’s running time focuses on the romantic triangle that ensues. Several important elements in Trailer B suggest a greater degree of user- repurposing. Manz’s tinny backwoods drawl, taken from the film’s narration, guides the trailer’s audio track for much of the running time, and is backed by a second musical track of delicately plucked guitar strings. In addition, the caption for Trailer B, located just below the video player on YouTube, states, “Bill, Abby, and sis arrive on the panhandle,” a sentiment only marginally correlated with the majority of the trailer’s visual narrative (YouTube 2014f). Another item that speaks to user re-appropriation is the individual shot duration, which moves at a more leisurely pace here, and seems to have been edited mostly to match Manz’s voiceover.

Further suggestive of fan involvement with Trailer B’s content is the abrupt segue from Manz’s voice and the guitar string audio tracks to the ambient sounds of trotting horses and rolling wagon wheels. Visually, the nonprofessional editing is emphasized at this point as well, with a sequence in which Gere’s character is propositioned for work by a land baron, a moment that is abruptly interrupted by a long shot of migrants moving en mass across the prairie. Throughout the two and a half-minute running time for Trailer B, the mood and tone shift in favor of different scenes from the film that drive the trailer towards a questionable conclusion. Marketing and film promotion is immediately evident on the webpage for Trailer C [Fig. 8]. The Criterion Collection offers viewers the option of purchasing several DVD versions of the film, reading a written essay on the film’s historical significance, a list of DVD special features, and links to related films from the company in addition to the trailer.

The trailer itself, however, is constructed from film content not included in Trailers A and B. In this much-abridged version, the guitar audio track preceding Manz’s narration is audibly fragmented and disassociated from any cohesive visible narrative. As such, the film’s primary visual content is made up of close-ups of the nondescript faces of migrants overlooking a land of grazing crows and antelope on the abandoned prairie. Here, Manz’s brief narration serves to introduce the film’s quiet mood and leisurely pacing. The aforementioned scene of Gere interacting with the land baron is cut prematurely in Trailer C, presumably for purposes of keeping the trailer’s length under the running time of one minute. In this version, the scene that introduces the bullhorn-gripping farm owner is interrupted by an establishing crane shot that places the viewer in the midst of migrants scampering towards the opportunity of work. Each of these moments take up several seconds worth of running time, and Criterion’s trailer closes abruptly with a surprising fade-to-black.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Fig. 11: Criterion’s webpage for Days of Heaven offers visitors a number of options to interact with the film.

Whereas the finales of both fan-appropriated trailers on YouTube are classically structured to mirror the resolutions found in many trailers of the 1970s, the transition to a black frame in Trailer C suggests a different kind of closure. The trailer concludes by returning to a still frame of six farmhands standing in awe of an insect downpour, a somewhat iconic image from the famous “locust scene” in the film. This visual placeholder is representative of Criterion’s idyllic version of the film’s significance. As such, this striking still image speaks directly to curating the memory of Days, arguably more so than the totality of the narrative for Trailer C. Although the design of the distributor’s webpage is simultaneously content-heavy and visually arresting, this emblematic still frame stands apart, begging the visitor to click, watch or re-watch and possibly, purchase the film from the distributor.

Feedback on Heaven: The Online Discourse of Cinematic Aesthetics & Nostalgia

The contents of three hundred user-generated message board posts for Trailers A, B, and C were analyzed for this study. Most of this feedback was found to be praiseworthy of Days, with many of the user-posts lauding the film’s cinematography. The discourse on Criterion’s webpage for the film was overwhelmingly positive and found to reflect the distributor’s marketing intentions. “A beautiful spectral and view of the early 1900s mid-western America,” Mike Santoro wrote on the message board. “I love Malick’s brilliant direction in this [film]” (The Criterion Collection 2014b). Others commentators on this webpage used specific discourse that intertwined aspects of their real-world lives with the film’s history and nostalgia. “My first Malick movie, discovered when I was watching every movie on rogerebert.com’s ‘101 Movies To See Before You Die,’” Taylor P. stated. Bennett Duckworth wrote, “…thanks Dad for introducing this movie to me.” And mimicking Manz’s drawl in the character’s narration, Arthur Mhoyan said, “There were people sufferin’ in pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin’ out of their mouths” (The Criterion Collection 2014c).

While single-word and somewhat elusive statements, such as “Breathtaking” and “Beautiful,” were found on the Criterion message board as well, much of the feedback was more detailed and descriptive. The lack of negative comments on the message board is further indicative of Criterion’s approach to online publicity and distribution for the film. In turn, the majority of user-feedback for Trailers A and B on YouTube was specifically targeted at the film’s cinematography. Equal parts excitement and praise for the film’s imagery was evident on both message boards, suggesting that the film’s visual approach is endorsed through fan-recall on these video-streaming webpages. For example, the “GregF” channel wrote, “…all 5 [of] Malick’s movies are beautiful but there are no words to describe Days Of Heaven…pure magic.” The “44eelz” channel posted, “i haven’t seen this movie yet but the cinematography looks amazing.” The “ErikHutt” channel added that “[Days] was shot in Alberta,” and the “MrKeepitunderyourhat” channel said, “To be honest, I’d say that the most famous aspect of the entire film is its magic hour cinematography” (YouTube 2014g).

The similarities in the content and tone of the statements analyzed across all three webpages suggest that fans are fond of the film’s historical significance and imagery. The cause-effect nature of this discourse also acts as an effort to keep the film in memory while promoting it to others. The content of this rhetoric also signifies the film’s ability to evoke an era in Hollywood history in which aesthetic power swayed and captivated audience members. In sum, much of this online discourse speaks to how film fans in online spaces curate the myth and nostalgia of aging mainstream film properties. Much of these statements reflect a sincere familiarity with Malick’s production design and the aesthetic properties of the cinematography. The statements under analysis, therefore, speak to the role of message boards in film advertising as well as the intricacies of fan-generated promotional feedback.

Promoting Hollywood Through the Fan Trailers: The Archive in Transit

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.

This article investigated how participatory cultures use fan trailers to engage with aging Hollywood titles in online spaces. The findings suggest that online film fans utilize fan trailers to interact with others while drawing attention to archival film properties. In effect, the findings from this study demonstrate several ways in which trailer repurposing and exhibition on the Internet aids in developing fan support around older motion pictures. An upsurge in fan trailers on the Internet is a burgeoning avenue of marketing for Hollywood studios and film distributors. Through new media platforms, fan trailers have the potential to reach global audiences and encourage social networking and commentary. In this study, the number of fan trailer views and user-generated message board posts was found to play a role in supporting interest in online film content. The audiovisual elements of both fan trailers for this study were generated from existing film content and repurposed to varying degrees. Specifically, the fan-edited trailer content was found to draw attention to the emotive properties of the film text. Collectively, the trailer narratives for this study presented an overwhelmingly favorable image of the case study film, as well as its historical significance and nostalgic qualities. The textual or written discourse analyzed in message boards on the webpages under investigation was found to shape the collective memory of the case study film as well. The content from this portion of the analysis also helped in preserving a positive view of the film itself, with much of the user-generated feedback positioned to promote the film’s cinematography and production design.

The composite findings indicate that fan trailers play a detrimental role in reviving older studio properties. The unintended consequences of these actions suggest a new avenue for media conglomerates and/or film distributors in marketing older motion pictures in the digital era. With Hollywood making fewer “midrange films [with] distinctly American subject matter,” such as Days of Heaven, smaller production companies and independent channels are overtaking this once-profitable market (Goldstein 2012). The role(s) taken on by members of participatory cultures, as well as the long-term effects of their interventions in online spaces, remains to be seen. For aging Hollywood film, fan trailers appear to offer one example of a promotional tool for film distribution and archiving. In June 2015, more than 88 million viewers had accessed 107 mock fan trailers through Honest Trailers, the YouTube-hosted channel by Screen Junkies (YouTube 2015). As Erickson (2009b) suggested, “with rapidly evolving technological features and equipment, tomorrow may yield an entirely new approach to using the Internet in a film promotion campaign” (51). As technological advancements in cinema and digital media continue to unfold, new online platforms and Web channels are creating an increasing number of spaces for participatory cultures and motion pictures. While many of these changes are on the horizon, scholars have predicted a continuous stream of content-related interruptions from tech-savvy film fans, as well as an evolution in the blending of virtual selves with cinematic information in cyberspace (e.g., Hansen 2006; Hardt and Negri 2004). Although the art of re-appropriating film content on the Internet has ballooned into a truly mass phenomenon, the future and direction of the fan trailer will depend on the negotiated balance between online cinephiles and digital control of motion picture properties.

REFERENCES 

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Filmography

Avatar. 2009. Directed by James Cameron. USA: 20th Century Fox.

Bonnie and Clyde. 1967. Directed by Arthur Penn. USA: Warner Brothers.

Days of Heaven. 1978. Directed by Terrence Malick. USA: Paramount Pictures. 

Gone Girl. 2014. Directed by David Fincher. USA: 20th Century Fox.

The Blair Witch Project
. 1999. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. USA: Haxan Films.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. 2001. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 2002. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003. Directed by Peter Jackson. USA: New Line Cinema.

YouTube. 2008. “Days Of Heaven – Trailer (1978).” Last modified April 17, 2008.

YouTube. 2009. “Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick (1978).” Last modified on November 9, 2009.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven – Trailer.” Last modified on April 13, 2013.

YouTube. 2013. “Days of Heaven–A Video Essay.” Last modified on October 16, 2013.

YouTube. 2015. “Honest Trailers.” Accessed February 11, 2015.


Notes
[1]
Days of Heaven’s 1978 box-office gross was $3.5 million nationwide. Compare this figure to other mainstream studio releases of 1978 that received Oscar attention and critical acclaim, such as Heaven Can Wait ($81.6 million) (Beatty 1978), The Deer Hunter (roughly $49 million) (Cimino 1978), and Midnight Express ($35 million) (Parker 1978) (BoxOfficeMojo 2014).

[2] At the time of this writing, three Malick-directed films are in various stages of development, with his next feature, Knight of Cups, scheduled for wide release in 2015.

[3] The one-hour, thirty-three minute feature film is also available for rent or purchase on YouTube.

[4] Paramount Pictures’ YouTube channel displays fewer than 4,000 posts.

[5] This image is also used near the end of Trailer A, primarily to symbolize the passage of time for migrants moving from urban to rural areas.

Bio:

Kyle R. McDaniel is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. His research interests include the intersections between American cinema and digital culture in the 21st century. His forthcoming dissertation focuses on the usage and repetition of visual effects in contemporary documentary film.

 

“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin – Joseph Brennan

Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’ who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self. This reading offers insight into the reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.

Introduction

The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas figure. (For those unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp 1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin (2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the program’s five-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur specifically. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series, and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.

Merlin (2008–2012)

Spanning five years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the namesake’s acceptance and fulfilment of his destiny to assist Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It differs from most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur in the final episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot. For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the final episode invites comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a “wishful identification” (see Hoffner and Buchanan 2005) with such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a universe hostile to ‘their kind.’

The finale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the first episode of the final season.[1] Arthur is slain by his former knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan 2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers—that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.

Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash Manips

Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles (see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its significance. In particular, scholars have examined its representations and the value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015, 97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan 2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The article also includes an examination of a tradition of using queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a ‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his definition of cult television as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat 2012, who examines Merlin fanfic trailers to explore how fans of the series remix the canon relationship of its male protagonists.)

Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash fans produce texts in the form of fiction, video, and art to depict their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans, magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us, the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely ‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the significance of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been defined.)

Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as high resolution screen shots or promotional images from Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion) digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a process I describe as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (see Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists. The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly ‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the “project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a typology that identifies seven character types in folktales, each with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain, Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil, much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend, Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as confirmed by Mordred’s final words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13 [abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and confirming that we are all the heroes of our own story.

Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in queer readings—but further because he bridges the central characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are described in the series as “two sides of the same coin” (Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin (manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active, sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength, feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving freely between them, which is in part why the titular character—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself. Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately denies himself.

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to outline the respective benefits of each to homosexual identity development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual, sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of “thoughtfulness, reflection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon 1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the offensive and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).

These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to being literal personifications of these archetypes, display a combination of the corresponding traits in their representation: Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to exist in the grey area between the well-defined and policed binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover affords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician) connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series, excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior, not a daffodil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur “stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine, which is how sorcery is defined (and portrayed by Morgana), and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and King, Uther.

In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his efforts to maintain separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the Druid boy’s appearances over the final season of Merlin and his transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the fluidity and openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred bonds between Arthur and his men.

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in I.5, when Guinevere confides in Merlin that she hopes one day Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is different. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—particularly when compared with other adaptations in which the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season three):

the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father, Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)

After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015, 81).

Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of each other. Mordred defies Morgana at the start of season five, in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way, making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the character self-sacrifices for the greater good until Arthur asks of him a sacrifice that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound, welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.

Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate. The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their first meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes the point that Arthur’s affection for Launcelot “outweighs his affection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990, 171) The significance of such a suggestion of eroticism—whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and Campbell are preoccupied with definitions of proper masculine behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ figure throughout the final season of the series, and a character that has something important to say about the villain’s journey.

V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butterfield, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V) is first introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the first to call Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther, an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the young Druid will bring about Arthur’s demise and therefore that Merlin “must let the boy die.” However it is only at the end of this episode (I.8) that viewers learn this character is in fact the Mordred of legend. As Sherman points out, in Merlin the plot device of “introducing a figure or object from Arthurian legend while withholding his, her, or its name” (as with Mordred, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94). Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the final season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos, see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’ end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is significance to be found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season five, while an adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s ‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash fans with other adult males.

Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur: “Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?” Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped, Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which Arthur and Mordred first meet as adults is rich in visual symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the filthy brutes of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes, blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery. All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and reflective armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes. Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s dreams throughout the final season, such imagery is phallic and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal fixation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to move his bowels without an enema administered by a male attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes, “the Wolf Man observed at first hand what being used from behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men, argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more specifically the psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s first adult meeting is explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy, light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands exploring each other’s naked flesh, foreshadows the (erotic) intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52), a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery. Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin, “Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165) In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these characters is fitting, especially given that in many retellings of the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened sexuality signified by the appearances of the adult Mordred and season five’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual, and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.

In the first episode of season five, despite travelling with their captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains, “He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive. “Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,” Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his background adding to the suspense of the character and his intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped. She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

While Morgana is successful in capturing Arthur, she is stopped from killing him by Mordred, who decides in a moment of intensity to change sides. It would seem that Arthur’s willingness to risk his life—“Had to free my men.”—inspires Mordred to literally stab his own kind in the back with a dagger. In the following scene, a confused Merlin asks the Diamair—the key to all knowledge—“If Mordred is not Arthur’s bane than who is?”, to which the Diamair replies, “Himself.” This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred. Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin offers to remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. Morgana had forgotten that.

Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle. Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this scene being his jealousy.

Mordred and Merlin are “not so different,” as Mordred identifies earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power. Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the ‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer back to the Wolf Man myth) and signifieds of dispassionate, focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed, distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless, gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play. Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’ doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my intended subversion of Merlin, the power afforded to Sir Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.

Other artists have also explored the new power differential between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new affordances with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates the image:

Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights of the round table” aka sex buddy club.

Morgana can only offer Mordred some cheap magic tricks and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can offer him unlimited gay sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)

Expressed in the above are the benefits that come with Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has (homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here, her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this manip is just how much Arthur has to offer.

Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now fills; or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to fill. The artist implies that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king than that offered by his manservant. This implication is in much the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French knight Geoffroi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate interactions between knights in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown). Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred specifically, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes just such a ritual:

Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good (chewableprose 2014)

In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely different (a theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the significance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate. That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change, perhaps you should give [Mordred] the benefit of the doubt.” (V.2) Merlin never does.

Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s Search for Each Other

Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt descriptor for a character difficult to watch. From a slash perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise. The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015, 37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos, the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the final season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-figure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).

The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric artifice. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides, Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers, the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.

Figure 11. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword confirms how little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last saw him. Where did he learn to fight in a manner that would impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor, Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s own father-figure—efforts to convince Merlin that Mordred will not necessarily betray Arthur:

The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.

In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of ‘Arthur’s bane.’

V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill Arthur”

Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an early scene that labours his inability to afford Mordred the opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there could have been a very different outcome for all concerned if he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:

MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done the same. He was one of us, after all.

MERLIN          It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live in freedom again.

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.

It is their first scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to find his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths” comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah confirms this later in the episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom he can confide, someone with magic like himself who can help him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself. That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode, Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the ‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When conflict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced Mordred to change sides:

ARTHUR          What happened to you, Morgana? As a child, you were so kind, so compassionate.

MORGANA      I grew up.

Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to ‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding, becomes significant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by campfire, a recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of flame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is, seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by influencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

MERLIN          I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was to kill Mordred.

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

MERLIN          But all I did was make sure he lived. That was the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment for rejecting magic.

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

MERLIN          But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well. He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred to stray onto a different path. Merlin is right in so far as this cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed: Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does, which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side, uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake. As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1: “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right. To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy everything we strive for.”

This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another fan criticism of the plotting of the final episode (see Caspers 2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in the past. This time was different, this time Arthur’s fate was decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—of what might have been.

Figure 6 Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”

Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son. The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential leaks in the ranks. The episode is the final in the ‘evil!Guinevere trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to the rescue when a cliff fall leaves Merlin unconscious and Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that evening around a campfire: that site of homoerotic significance. There, sitting around erect flames, Arthur makes reference to the triangle Mordred effects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic: “Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between them:

MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious, Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates Morgana and Mordred’s first meeting since his defection:

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

MORGANA      My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How could it be? We’re of a kind.

MORDRED Never.

MORGANA      You wear the uniform well but we both know what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a sorcerer.

MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be accepted.

MORGANA      Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold: symbolising the fire Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7); ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the beginning of the end.

Figure 13. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”

Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on Mordred’s behalf:

MERLIN          You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.

ARTHUR          There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No matter what he preaches, he is no different from his father.” Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot. However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of Mordred’s intentions. It is one final failure on Merlin’s behalf to choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires him.

Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending. Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara. And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all of the court Arthur offers Kara a chance: “If you repent your crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour. Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a 2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip configures the two in the missionary position and is set in Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line with the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature, while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions and line of sight to each other.

Despite Arthur’s best efforts to
alleviate tensions with Mordred via an offer of clemency, Kara
remains resolute: “You deserve everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred never learns of Arthur’s offer to pardon Kara. In a state of acute grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose “betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015, 165)

Figure 14. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Conclusion

Reflecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:

[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances. It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favour; never reflecting on the chance of ruin, till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain, would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized. (208)

Wollstonecraft’s reflection is resonant with the execution of Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure. Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-unified Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his villainous path. This reading offers insight into the popular reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program full of homoerotic potential.

T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982, 50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him, and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or alone.

 

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Brennan, Joseph. “Slash Manips: Remixing Popular Media with Gay Pornography.” M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture 16.4 (2013).

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Notes

[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid (Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the final season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,” it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”

[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)

[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).

[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’

[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of Queen Annis and her guests.

[6] Producing offspring based on a digital composite of two male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.

[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).

 

Bio:
Joseph Brennan
is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans layer images of male characters from popular media with gay, and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.

Read, Watch, Listen: A commentary on eye tracking and moving images – Tim J. Smith

Abstract

Eye tracking is a research tool that has great potential for advancing our understanding of how we watch movies. Questions such as how differences in the movie influences where we look and how individual differences between viewers alters what we see can be operationalised and empirically tested using a variety of eye tracking measures. This special issue collects together an inspiring interdisciplinary range of opinions on what eye tracking can (and cannot) bring to film and television studies and practice. In this article I will reflect on each of these contributions with specific focus on three aspects: how subtitling and digital effects can reinvigorate visual attention, how audio can guide and alter our visual experience of film, and how methodological, theoretical and statistical considerations are paramount when trying to derive conclusions from eye tracking data.

 

Introduction

I have been obsessed with how people watch movies since I was a child. All you have to do is turn and look at an audience member’s face at the movies or at home in front of the TV to see the power the medium holds over them. We sit enraptured, transfixed and immersed in the sensory patterns of light and sound projected back at us from the screen. As our physical activity diminishes our mental activity takes over. We piece together minimal audiovisual cues to perceive rich otherworldly spaces, believable characters and complex narratives that engage us mentally and move us emotionally. As I progressed through my education in Cognitive Science and Psychology I was struck by how little science understood about cinema and the mechanisms filmmakers used to create this powerful experience.[i] Reading the film literature, listening to filmmakers discuss their craft and excavating gems of their craft knowledge I started to realise that film was a medium ripe for psychological investigation. The empirical study of film would further our understanding of how films work and how we experience them but it would also serve as a test bed for investigating complex aspects of real-world cognition that were often considered beyond the realms of experimentation. As I (Smith, Levin & Cutting, 2010) and others (Anderson, 2006) have argued elsewhere, film evolved to “piggy back” normal cognitive development and use basic cognitive tendencies such as attentional preferences, theory of mind, empathy and narrative structuring of memory to make the perception of film as enjoyable and effortless as possible. By investigating film cognition we can, in turn advance our understanding of general cognition. But to do so we need to step outside of traditional disciplinary boundaries concerning the study of film and approach the topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. This special issue represents a highly commendable attempt to do just that.

By bringing together psychologists, film theorists, philosophers, vision scientists, neuroscientists and screenwriters this special issue (and the Melbourne research group that most contributors belong to) provides a unique perspective on film viewing. The authors included in this special issue share my passion for understanding the relationship between viewers and film but this interest manifests in very different ways depending on their perspectives (see Redmond, Sita, and Vincs, this issue; for a similar personal journey into eye tracking as that presented above). By focussing on viewer eye movements the articles in this special issue provide readers from a range of disciplines a way into the eye tracking investigation of film viewing. Eye tracking (as comprehensively introduced and discussed by Dyer and Pink, this issue) is a powerful tool for quantifying a viewer’s experience of a film, comparing viewing behaviour across different viewing conditions and groups as well as testing hypotheses about how certain cinematic techniques impact where we look. But, as is rightly highlighted by several of the authors in this special issue eye tracking is not a panacea for all questions about film spectatorship.

Like all experimental techniques it can only measure a limited range of psychological states and behaviours and the data it produces does not say anything in and of itself. Data requires interpretation. Interpretation can take many forms[ii] but if conclusions are to be drawn about how the data relates to psychological states of the viewer this interpretation must be based on theories of psychology and ideally confirmed using secondary/supporting measures. For example, the affective experience of a movie is a critical aspect which cognitive approaches to film are often wrongly accused of ignoring. Although, cognitive approaches to film often focus on how we comprehend narratives (Magliano and Zacks, 2011), attend to the image (Smith, 2013) or follow formal patterns within a film (Cutting, DeLong and Nothelfer, 2010) several cognitivists have focussed in depth on emotional aspects (see the work of Carl Plantinga, Torben Grodal or Murray Smith). Eye tracking is the perfect tool for investigating the impact of immediate audiovisual information on visual attention but it is less suitable for measuring viewer affect. Psychophysiological measures such as heart rate and skin conductance, neuroimaging methods such as fMRI or EEG, or even self-report ratings may be better for capturing a viewer’s emotional responses to a film as has been demonstrated by several research teams (Suckfull, 2000; Raz et al, 2014). Unless the emotional state of the viewer changed where they looked or how quickly they moved their eyes the eye tracker may not detect any differences between two viewers with different emotional states.[iii]

As such, a researcher interested in studying the emotional impact of a film should either choose a different measurement technique or combine eye tracking with another more suitable technique (Dyer and Pink, this issue). This does not mean that eye tracking is unsuitable for studying the cinematic experience. It simply means that you should always choose the right tool for the job and often this means combining multiple tools that are strong in different ways. As Murray Smith (the current President of the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Images; SCSMI) has argued, a fully rounded investigation of the cinematic experience requires “triangulation” through the combination of multiple perspectives including psychological, neuroscientific and phenomenological/philosophical theory and methods (Smith, 2011) – an approach taken proudly across this special issue.

For the remainder of my commentary I would like to focus on certain themes that struck me as most personally relevant and interesting when reading the other articles in this special issue. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the themes raised by the other articles or even an assessment of the importance of the particular themes I chose to select. There are many other interesting observations made in the articles I do not focus on below but given my perspective as a cognitive scientist and current interests I decided to focus my commentary on these specific themes rather than make a comprehensive review of the special issues or tackle topics I am unqualified to comment on. Also, I wanted to take the opportunity to dispel some common misconceptions about eye tracking (see the section ‘Listening to the data’) and empirical methods in general.

Reading an image

One area of film cognition that has received considerable empirical investigation is subtitling. As Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz (this issue) so comprehensively review, they and I believe eye tracking is the perfect tool for investigating how we watch subtitled films. The presentation of subtitles divides the film viewing experience into a dual- task: reading and watching. Given that the media was originally designed to communicate critical information through two channels, the image and soundtrack introducing text as a third channel of communication places extra demands on the viewer’s visual system. However, for most competent readers serially shifting attention between these two tasks does not lead to difficulties in comprehension (Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz, this issue). Immediately following the presentation of the subtitles gaze will shift to the beginning of the text, saccade across the text and return to the centre of interest within a couple of seconds. Gaze heatmaps comparing the same scenes with and without subtitles (Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz, this issue; Fig. 3) show that the areas of the image fixated are very similar (ignoring the area of the screen occupied by the subtitles themselves) and rather than distracting from the visual content the presence of subtitles seems to actually condense the gaze behaviour on the areas of central interest in an image, e.g. faces and the centre of the image. This illustrates the redundancy of a lot of the visual information presented in films and the fact that under non-subtitle conditions viewers rarely explore the periphery of the image (Smith, 2013).

My colleague Anna Vilaró and I recently demonstrated this similarity in an eye tracking study in which the gaze behaviour of viewers was compared across versions of an animated film, Disney’s Bolt (Howard & Williams, 2008) either in the original English audio condition, a Spanish language version with English subtitles, an English language version with Spanish subtitles and a Spanish language version without subtitles (Vilaró, & Smith, 2011). Given that our participants were English speakers who did not know Spanish these conditions allowed us to investigate both where they looked under the different audio and subtitle conditions but also what they comprehended. Using cued recall tests of memory for verbal and visual content we found no significant differences in recall for either types of content across the viewing conditions except for verbal recall in the Spanish-only condition (not surprisingly given that our English participants couldn’t understand the Spanish dialogue). Analysis of the gaze behaviour showed clear evidence of subtitle reading, even in the Spanish subtitle condition (see Figure 1) but no differences in the degree to which peripheral objects were explored. This indicates that even when participants are watching film sequences without subtitles and know that their memory will be tested for the visual content their gaze still remains focussed on central features of a traditionally composed film. This supports arguments for subtitling movies over dubbing as, whilst placing greater demands on viewer gaze and a heightened cognitive load there is no evidence that subtitling leads to poorer comprehension.

Figure 1: Figure from Vilaró & Smith (2011) showing the gaze behaviour of multiple viewers directed to own language subtitles (A) and foreign language/uninterpretable subtitles (B).

Figure 1: Figure from Vilaró & Smith (2011) showing the gaze behaviour of multiple viewers directed to own language subtitles (A) and foreign language/uninterpretable subtitles (B).

The high degree of attentional synchrony (Smith and Mital, 2013) observed in the above experiment and during most film sequences indicates that all visual features in the image and areas of semantic significance (e.g. social information and objects relevant to the narrative) tend to point to the same part of the image (Mital, Smith, Hill and Henderson, 2011). Only when areas of the image are placed in conflict through image composition (e.g. depth of field, lighting, colour or motion contrast) or staging (e.g. multiple actors) does attentional synchrony break down and viewer gaze divide between multiple locations. Such shots are relatively rare in mainstream Hollywood cinema or TV (Salt, 2009; Smith, 2013) and when used the depicted action tends to be highly choreographed so attention shifts between the multiple centres of image in a predictable fashion (Smith, 2012). If such choreographing of action is not used the viewer can quickly exhaust the information in the image and start craving either new action or a cut to a new shot.

Hochberg and Brooks (1978) referred to this as the visual momentum of the image: the pace at which visual information is acquired. This momentum is directly observable in the saccadic behaviour during an images presentation with frequent short duration fixations at the beginning of a scene’s presentation interspersed by large amplitude saccades (known as the ambient phase of viewing; Velichovsky, Dornhoefer, Pannasch and Unema, 2000) and less frequent, longer duration fixations separated by smaller amplitude saccades as the presentation duration increases (known as the focal phase of viewing; Velichovsky et al., 2000). I have recently demonstrated the same pattern of fixations during viewing of dynamic scenes (Smith and Mital, 2013) and shown how this pattern gives rise to more central fixations at shot onset and greater exploration of the image and decreased attentional synchrony as the shot duration increases (Mital, Smith, Hill and Henderson, 2011). Interestingly, the introduction of subtitles to a movie may have the unintended consequence of sustaining visual momentum throughout a shot. The viewer is less likely to exhaust the information in the image because their eyes are busy saccading across the text to acquire the information that would otherwise be presented in parallel to the image via the soundtrack. This increased saccadic activity may increase the cognitive load experienced by viewers of subtitled films and change their affective experience, producing greater arousal and an increased sense of pace.

For some filmmakers and producers of dynamic visual media, increasing the visual momentum of an image sequence may be desirable as it maintains interest and attention on the screen (e.g. Michael Bay’s use of rapidly edited extreme Close-Ups and intense camera movements in the Transformer movies). In this modern age of multiple screens fighting for our attention when we are consuming moving images (e.g. mobile phones and computer screens in our living rooms and even, sadly increasingly at the cinema) if the designers of this media are to ensure that our visual attention is focussed on their screen over the other competing screens they need to design the visual display in a way that makes comprehension impossible without visual attention. Feature Films and Television dramas often rely heavily on dialogue for narrative communication and the information communicated through the image may be of secondary narrative importance to the dialogue so viewers can generally follow the story just by listening to the film rather than watching it. If producers of dynamic visual media are to draw visual attention back to the screen and away from secondary devices they need to increase the ratio of visual to verbal information. A simple way of accomplishing this is to present the critical audio information through subtitling. The more visually attentive mode of viewing afforded by watching subtitled film and TV may partly explain the growing interest in foreign TV series (at least in the UK) such as the popularity of Nordic Noir series such as The Bridge (2011) and The Killing (2007).

Another way of drawing attention back to the screen is to constantly “refresh” the visual content of the image by either increasing the editing rate or creatively using digital composition.[iv] The latter technique is wonderfully exploited by Sherlock (2010) as discussed brilliantly by Dwyer (this issue). Sherlock contemporised the detective techniques of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson by incorporating modern technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones and simultaneously updated the visual narrative techniques used to portray this information by using digital composition to playfully superimpose this information onto the photographic image. In a similar way to how the sudden appearance of traditional subtitles involuntarily captures visual attention and draws our eyes down to the start of the text, the digital inserts used in Sherlock overtly capture our eyes and encourage reading within the viewing of the image.

If Dwyer (this issue) had eyetracked viewers watching these excerpts she would have likely observed this interesting shifting between phases of reading and dynamic scene perception. Given that the appearance of the digital inserts produce sudden visual transients and are highly incongruous with the visual features of the background scene they are likely to involuntarily attract attention (Mital, Smith, Hill & Henderson, 2012). As such, they can be creatively used to reinvigorate the pace of viewing and strategically direct visual attention to parts of the image away from the screen centre. Traditionally, the same content may have been presented either verbally as narration, heavy handed dialogue exposition (e.g. “Oh my! I have just received a text message stating….”) or as a slow and laboured cut to close-up of the actual mobile phone so we can read it from the perspective of the character. Neither takes full advantage of the communicative potential of the whole screen space or our ability to rapidly attend to and comprehend visual information and audio information in parallel.

Such intermixing of text, digital inserts and filmed footage is common in advertisements, music videos, and documentaries (see Figure 2) but is still surprisingly rare in mainstream Western film and TV. Short-form audiovisual messages have recently experienced a massive increase in popularity due to the internet and direct streaming to smartphones and mobile devices. To maximise their communicative potential and increase their likelihood of being “shared” these videos use all audiovisual tricks available to them. Text, animations, digital effects, audio and classic filmed footage all mix together on the screen, packing every frame with as much info as possible (Figure 2), essentially maximising the visual momentum of each video and maintaining interest for as long as possible.[v] Such videos are so effective at grabbing attention and delivering satisfying/entertaining/informative experiences in a short period of time that they often compete directly with TV and film for our attention. Once we click play, the audiovisual bombardment ensures that our attention remains latched on to the second screen (i.e., the tablet or smartphone) for its duration and away from the primary screen, i.e., the TV set. Whilst distressing for producers of TV and Film who wish our experience of their material to be undistracted, the ease with which we pick up a handheld device and seek other stimulation in parallel to the primary experience may indicate that the primary material does not require our full attention for us to follow what is going on. As attention has a natural ebb-and-flow (Cutting, DeLong and Nothelfer, 2010) and “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time” (p. 421; James, 1890) if modern producers of Film and TV want to maintain a high level of audience attention and ensure it is directed to the screen they must either rely on viewer self-discipline to inhibit distraction, reward attention to the screen with rich and nuanced visual information (as fans of “slow cinema” would argue of films like those of Bela Tarr) or utilise the full range of postproduction effects to keep visual interest high and maintained on the image, as Sherlock so masterfully demonstrates.

Figure 2: Gaze Heatmaps of participants’ free-viewing a trailer for Lego Indiana Jones computer game (left column) and the Video Republic documentary (right column). Notice how both make copious use of text within the image, as intertitles and as extra sources of information in the image (such as the head-up display in A3). Data and images were taken from the Dynamic Images and Eye Movement project (DIEM; Mital, Smith, Hill & Henderson, 2010). Videos can be found here (http://vimeo.com/6628451) and here (http://vimeo.com/2883321).

Figure 2: Gaze Heatmaps of participants’ free-viewing a trailer for Lego Indiana Jones computer game (left column) and the Video Republic documentary (right column). Notice how both make copious use of text within the image, as intertitles and as extra sources of information in the image (such as the head-up display in A3). Data and images were taken from the Dynamic Images and Eye Movement project (DIEM; Mital, Smith, Hill & Henderson, 2010). Videos can be found here (http://vimeo.com/6628451) and here (http://vimeo.com/2883321).

A number of modern filmmakers are beginning to experiment with the language of visual storytelling by questioning our assumptions of how we perceive moving images. Forefront in this movement are Ang Lee and Andy and Lana Wachowski. In Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), Lee worked very closely with editor Tim Squyers to use non-linear digital editing and after effects to break apart the traditional frame and shot boundaries and create an approximation of a comic book style within film. This chaotic unpredictable style polarised viewers and was partly blamed for the film’s poor reception. However, it cannot be argued that this experiment was wholly unsuccessful. Several sequences within the film used multiple frames, split screens, and digital transformation of images to increase the amount of centres of interest on the screen and, as a consequence increase pace of viewing and the arousal experienced by viewers. In the sequence depicted below (Figure 3) two parallel scenes depicting Hulk’s escape from a containment chamber (A1) and this action being watched from a control room by General Ross (B1) were presented simultaneously by presenting elements of both scenes on the screen at the same time. Instead of using a point of view (POV) shot to show Ross looking off screen (known as the glance shot; Branigan, 1984) followed by a cut to what he was looking at (the object shot) both shots were combined into one image (F1 and F2) with the latter shot sliding into from behind Ross’ head (E2). These digital inserts float within the frame, often gliding behind objects or suddenly enlarging to fill the screen (A2-B2). Such visual activity and use of shots-within-shots makes viewer gaze highly active (notice how the gaze heatmap is rarely clustered in one place; Figure 3). Note that this method of embedding a POV object shot within a glance shot is similar to Sherlock’s method of displaying text messages as both the glance, i.e., Watson looking at his phone, and the object, i.e., the message, are shown in one image. Both uses take full advantage of our ability to rapidly switch from watching action to reading text without having to wait for a cut to give us the information.

Figure 3: Gaze heatmap of eight participants watching a series of shots and digital inserts from Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003). Full heatmap video is available at http://youtu.be/tErdurgN8Yg.

Figure 3: Gaze heatmap of eight participants watching a series of shots and digital inserts from Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003). Full heatmap video is available at http://youtu.be/tErdurgN8Yg.

Similar techniques have been used Andy and Lana Wachowski’s films including most audaciously in Speed Racer (2008). Interestingly, both sets of filmmakers seem to intuitively understand that packing an image with as much visual and textual information as possible can lead to viewer fatigue and so they limit such intense periods to only a few minutes and separate them with more traditionally composed sequences (typically shot/reverse-shot dialogue sequences). These filmmakers have also demonstrated similar respect for viewer attention and the difficulty in actively locating and encoding visual information in a complex visual composition in their more recent 3D movies. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) uses the visual volume created by stereoscopic presentation to its full potential. Characters inhabit layers within the volume as foreground and background objects fluidly slide around each other within this space. The lessons Lee and his editor Tim Squyers learned on Hulk (2003) clearly informed the decisions they made when tackling their first 3D film and allowed them to avoid some of the issues most 3D films experience such as eye strain, sudden unexpected shifts in depth and an inability to ensure viewers are attending to the part of the image easiest to fuse across the two eye images (Banks, Read, Allison & Watt, 2012).

Watching Audio

I now turn to another topic featured in this special issue, the influence of audio on gaze (Robinson, Stadler and Rassell, this issue). Film and TV are inherently multimodal. Both media have always existed as a combination of visual and audio information. Even early silent film was almost always presented with either live musical accompaniment or a narrator. As such, the relative lack of empirical investigation into how the combination of audio and visual input influences how we perceive movies and, specifically how we attend to them is surprising. Robinson, Stadler and Rassell (this issue) have attempted to address this omission by comparing eye movements for participants either watching the original version of the Omaha beach sequence from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) or the same sequence with the sound removed. This film sequence is a great choice for investigating AV influences on viewer experience as the intensity of the action, the hand-held cinematography and the immersive soundscape all work together to create a disorientating embodied experience for the viewer. The authors could have approached this question by simply showing a set of participants the sequence with audio and qualitatively describing the gaze behaviour at interesting AV moments during the sequence. Such description of the data would have served as inspiration for further investigation but in itself can’t say anything about the causal contribution of audio to this behaviour as there would be nothing to compare the behaviour to. Thankfully, the authors avoided this problem by choosing to manipulate the audio.

In order to identify the causal contribution of any factor you need to design an experiment in which that factor (known as the Independent Variable) is either removed or manipulated and the significant impact of this manipulation on the behaviour of interest (known as the Dependent Variable) is tested using appropriate inferential statistics. I commend Robinson, Stadler and Rassell’s experimental design as they present such an manipulation and are therefore able to produce data that will allow them to test their hypotheses about the causal impact of audio on viewer gaze behaviour. Several other papers in this special issue (Redmond, Sita and Vincs; Batty, Perkins and Sita) discuss gaze data (typically in the form of scanpaths or heatmaps) from one viewing condition without quantifying its difference to another viewing condition. As such, they are only able to describe the gaze data, not use it to test hypotheses. There is always a temptation to attribute too much meaning to a gaze heatmap (I too am guilty of this; Smith, 2013) due to their seeming intuitive nature (i.e., they looked here and not there) but, as in all psychological measures they are only as good as the experimental design within which there are employed.[vi]

Qualitative interpretation of individual fixation locations, scanpaths or group heatmaps are useful for informing initial interpretation of which visual details are most likely to make it into later visual processing (e.g. perception, encoding and long term memory representations) but care has to be taken in falsely assuming that fixation equals awareness (Smith, Lamont and Henderson, 2012). Also, the visual form of gaze heatmaps vary widely depending on how many participants contribute to the heatmap, which parameters you choose to generate the heatmaps and which oculomotor measures the heatmap represent (Holmqvist, et al., 2011). For example, I have demonstrated that unlike during reading visual encoding during scene perception requires over 150ms during each fixation (Rayner, Smith, Malcolm and Henderson, 2009). This means that if fixations with durations less than 150ms are included in a heatmap it may suggest parts of the image have been processed which in actual fact were fixated too briefly to be processed adequately. Similarly, heatmaps representing fixation duration instead of just fixation location have been shown to be a better representation of visual processing (Henderson, 2003). Heatmaps have an immediate allure but care has to be taken about imposing too much meaning on them especially when the gaze and the image are changing over time (see Smith and Mital, 2013; and Sawahata et al, 2008 for further discussion). As eye tracking hardware becomes more available to researchers from across a range of disciplines we need to work harder to ensure that it is not used inappropriately and that the conclusions that are drawn from eye tracking data are theoretically and statistically motivated (see Rayner, 1998; and Holmqvist et al, 2013 for clear guidance on how to conduct sound eye tracking studies).

Given that Robinson, Stadler and Rassell (this issue) manipulated the critical factor, i.e., the presence of audio the question now is whether their study tells us anything new about the AV influences on gaze during film viewing. To examine the influence of audio they chose two traditional methods for expressing the gaze data: area of interest (AOI) analysis and dispersal. By using nine static (relative to the screen) AOIs they were able to quantify how much time the gaze spent in each AOI and utilise this measure to work out how distributed gaze was across all AOIs. Using these measures they reported a trend towards greater dispersal in the mute condition compared to the audio condition and a small number of significant differences in the amount of time spent in some regions across the audio conditions.

However, the conclusions we can draw from these findings are seriously hindered by the low sample size (only four participants were tested, meaning that any statistical test is unlikely to reveal significant differences) and the static AOIs that did not move with the image content. By locking the AOIs to static screen coordinates their AOI measures express the deviation of gaze relative to these coordinates, not to the image content. This approach can be informative for quantifying gaze exploration away from the screen centre (Mital, Smith, Hill and Henderson, 2011) but in order to draw conclusions about what was being fixated the gaze needs to be quantified relative to dynamic AOIs that track objects of interest on the screen (see Smith an Mital, 2013). For example, their question about whether we fixate a speaker’s mouth more in scenes where the clarity of the speech is difficult due to background noise (i.e., their “Indistinct Dialogue” scene) has previously been investigated in studies that have manipulated the presence of audio (Võ, Smith, Mital and Henderson, 2012) or the level of background noise (Buchan, Paré and Munhall, 2007) and measured gaze to dynamic mouth regions. As Robinson, Stadler and Rassell correctly predicted, lip reading increases as speech becomes less distinct or the listener’s linguistic competence in the spoken language decreases (see Võ et al, 2012 for review).

Similarly, by measuring gaze dispersal using a limited number of static AOIs they are losing considerable nuance in the gaze data and have to resort to qualitative description of unintuitive bar charts (figure 4). There exist several methods for quantifying gaze dispersal (see Smith and Mital, 2013, for review) and even open-source tools for calculating this measure and comparing dispersal across groups (Le Meur and Baccino, 2013). Some methods are as easy, if not easier to calculate than the static AOIs used in the present study. For example, the Euclidean distance between the screen centre and the x/y gaze coordinates at each frame of the movie provides a rough measure of how spread out the gaze is from the screen centre (typically the default viewing location; Mital et al, 2011) and a similar calculation can be performed between the gaze position of all participants within a viewing condition to get a measure of group dispersal.

Using such measures, Coutrot and colleagues (2012) showed that gaze dispersal is greater when you remove audio from dialogue film sequences and they have also observed shorter amplitude saccades and marginally shorter fixation durations. Although, I have recently shown that a non-dialogue sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) does not show significant differences in eye movement metrics when the accompanying music is removed (Smith, 2014). This difference in findings points towards interesting differences in the impact diegetic (within the depicted scene, e.g. dialogue) and non-diegetic (outside of the depicted scene, e.g. the musical score) may have on gaze guidance. It also highlights how some cinematic features may have a greater impact on other aspects of a viewer’s experience than those measureable by eye tracking such as physiological markers of arousal and emotional states. This is also the conclusion that Robinson, Stadler and Rassell come to.    

Listening to the Data (aka, What is Eye Tracking Good For?)

The methodological concerns I have raised in the previous section lead nicely to the article by William Brown, entitled There’s no I in Eye Tracking: How useful is Eye Tracking to Film Studies (this issue). I have known William Brown for several years through our attendance of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) annual conference and I have a deep respect for his philosophical approach to film and his ability to incorporate empirical findings from the cognitive neurosciences, including some references to my own work into his theories. Therefore, it comes somewhat as a surprise that his article openly attacks the application of eye tracking to film studies. However, I welcome Brown’s criticisms as it provides me with an opportunity to address some general assumptions about the scientific investigation of film and hopefully suggest future directions in which eye tracking research can avoid falling into some of the pitfalls Brown identifies.

Brown’s main criticisms of current eye tracking research are: 1) eye tracking studies neglect “marginal” viewers or marginal ways of watching movies; 2) studies so far have neglected “marginal” films; 3) they only provide “truisms”, i.e., already known facts; and 4) they have an implicit political agenda to argue that the only “true” way to study film is a scientific approach and the “best” way to make a film is to ensure homogeneity of viewer experience. I will address these criticisms in turn but before I do so I would like to state that a lot of Brown’s arguments could generally be recast as an argument against science in general and are built upon a misunderstanding of how scientific studies should be conducted and what they mean.

To respond to Brown’s first criticism that eye tracking “has up until now been limited somewhat by its emphasis on statistical significance – or, put simply, by its emphasis on telling us what most viewers look at when they watch films” (Brown, this issue; 1), I first have to subdivide the criticism into ‘the search for significance’ and ‘attentional synchrony’, i.e., how similar gaze is across viewers (Smith and Mital, 2013). Brown tells an anecdote about a Dutch film scholar who’s data had to be excluded from an eye tracking study because they did not look where the experimenter wanted them to look. I wholeheartedly agree with Brown that this sounds like a bad study as data should never be excluded for subjective reasons such as not supporting the hypothesis, i.e., looking as predicted. However, exclusion due to statistical reasons is valid if the research question being tested relates to how representative the behaviour of a small set of participants (known as the sample) are to the overall population. To explain when such a decision is valid and to respond to Brown’s criticism about only ‘searching for significance’ I will first need to provide a brief overview of how empirical eye tracking studies are designed and why significance testing is important.

For example, if we were interested in the impact sound had on the probability of fixating an actor’s mouth (e.g., Robinson, Stadler and Rassell, this issue) we would need to compare the gaze behaviour of a sample of participants who watch a sequence with the sound turned on to a sample who watched it with the sound turned off. By comparing the behaviour between these two groups using inferential statistics we are testing the likelihood that these two viewing conditions would differ in a population of all viewers given the variation within and between these two groups. In actual fact we do this by performing the opposite test: testing the probability that that the two groups belong to a single statistically indistinguishable group. This is known as the null hypothesis. By showing that there is less than a 5% chance that the null hypothesis is true we can conclude that there is a statistically significant chance that another sample of participants presented with the same two viewing conditions would show similar differences in viewing behaviour.

In order to test whether our two viewing conditions belong to one or two distributions we need to be able to express this distribution. This is typically done by identifying the mean score for each participant on the dependent variable of interest, in this case the probability of fixating a dynamic mouth AOI then calculating the mean for this measure across all participants within a group and their variation in scores (known as the standard deviation). Most natural measures produce a distribution of scores looking somewhat like a bell curve (known as the normal distribution) with most observations near the centre of the distribution and an ever decreasing number of observations as you move away from this central score. Each observation (in our case, participants) can be expressed relative to this distribution by subtracting the mean of the distribution from its score and dividing by the standard deviation. This converts a raw score into a normalized or z-score. Roughly ninety-five percent of all observations will fall within two standard deviations of the mean for normally distributed data. This means that observations with a z-score greater than two are highly unrepresentative of that distribution and may be considered outliers.

However, being unrepresentative of the group mean is insufficient motivation to exclude a participant. The outlier still belongs to the group distribution and should be included unless there is a supporting reason for exclusion such as measurement error, e.g. poor calibration of the eye tracker. If an extreme outlier is not excluded it can often have a disproportionate impact on the group mean and make statistical comparison of groups difficult. However, if this is the case it suggests that the sample size is too small and not representative of the overall population. Correct choice of sample size given an estimate of the predicted effect size combined with minimising measurement error should mean that subjective decisions do not have to be made about who’s data is “right” and who should be included or excluded.

Brown also believes that eye tracking research has so far marginalised viewers who have atypical ways of watching film, such as film scholars either by not studying them or treating them as statistical outliers and excluding them from analyses. However, I would argue that the only way to know if their way of watching a film is atypical is to first map out the distribution of how viewers typically watch films. If a viewer attended more to the screen edge than the majority of other viewers in a random sample of the population (as was the case with Brown’s film scholar colleague) this should show up as a large z-score when their gaze data is expressed relative to the group on a suitable measure such as Euclidean distance from the screen centre. Similarly, a non-native speaker of English may have appeared as an outlier in terms of how much time they spent looking at the speaker’s mouth in Robinson, Stadler and Rassell’s (this issue) study. Such idiosyncrasies may be of interest to researchers and there are statistical methods for expressing emergent groupings within the data (e.g. cluster analysis) or seeing whether group membership predicts behaviour (e.g. regression). These approaches may have not previously been applied to questions of film viewing but this is simply due to the immaturity of the field and the limited availability of the equipment or expertise to conduct such studies.

In my own recent work I have shown how viewing task influences how we watch unedited video clips (Smith and Mital, 2013), how infants watch TV (Wass and Smith, in press), how infant gaze differs to adult gaze (Smith, Dekker, Mital, Saez De Urabain and Karmiloff-Smith, in prep) and even how film scholars attend to and remember a short film compared to non-expert film viewers (Smith and Smith, in prep). Such group viewing differences are of great interest to me and I hope these studies illustrate how eye tracking has a lot to offer to such research questions if the right statistics and experimental designs are employed.

Brown’s second main criticism is that the field of eye tracking neglects “marginal” films. I agree that the majority of films that have so far been used in eye tracking studies could be considered mainstream. For example, the film/TV clips used in this special issue include Sherlock (2010), Up (2009) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). However, this limit is simply a sign of how few eye tracking studies of moving images there have been. All research areas take time to fully explore the range of possible research questions within that area.

I have always employed a range of films from diverse film traditions, cultures, and languages. My first published eye tracking study (Smith and Henderson, 2008) used film clips from Citizen Kane (1941), Dogville (2003), October (1928), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Blade Runner (1982). Several of these films may be considered “marginal” relative to the mainstream. If I have chosen to focus most of my analyses on mainstream Hollywood cinema this is only because they were the most suitable exemplars of the phenomena I was investigating such as continuity editing and its creation of a universal pattern of viewing (Smith, 2006; 2012). This interest is not because, as Brown argues, I have a hidden political agenda or an implicit belief that this style of filmmaking is the “right” way to make films. I am interested in this style because it is the dominant style and, as a cognitive scientist I wish to use film as a way of understanding how most people process audiovisual dynamic scenes.

Hollywood film stands as a wonderfully rich example of what filmmakers think “fits” human cognition. By testing filmmaker intuitions and seeing what impact particular compositional decisions have on viewer eye movements and behavioural responses I hope to gain greater insight into how audiovisual perception operates in non-mediated situations (Smith, Levin and Cutting, 2012). But, just as a neuropsychologist can learn about typical brain function by studying patients with pathologies such as lesions and strokes, I can also learn about how we perceive a “typical” film by studying how we watch experimental or innovative films. My previous work is testament to this interest (Smith, 2006; 2012a; 2012b; 2014; Smith & Henderson, 2008) and I hope to continue finding intriguing films to study and further my understanding of film cognition.

One practical reason why eye tracking studies rarely use foreign language films is the presence of subtitles. As has been comprehensively demonstrated by other authors in this special issue (Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz, this issue) and earlier in this article, the sudden appearance of text on the screen, even if it is incomprehensible leads to differences in eye movement behaviour. This invalidates the use of eye tracking as a way to measure how the filmmaker intended to shape viewer attention and perception. The alternatives would be to either use silent film (an approach I employed with October; Smith and Henderson, 2008), remove the audio (which changes gaze behaviour and awareness of editing; Smith & Martin-Portugues Santacreau, under review) or use dubbing (which can bias the gaze down to the poorly synched lips; Smith, Batten, and Bedford, 2014). None of these options are ideal for investigating foreign language sound film and until there is a suitable methodological solution this will restrict eye tracking studies to experimental films in a participant’s native language.

Finally, I would like to counter Brown’s assertion that eye tracking investigations of film have so far only generated “truisms”. I admit that there is often a temptation to reduce empirical findings to simplified take-home messages that only seem to confirm previous intuitions such as a bias of gaze towards the screen centre, towards speaking faces, moving objects or subtitles. However, I would argue that such messages fail to appreciate the nuance in the data. Empirical data correctly measured and analysed can provide subtle insights into a phenomenon that subjective introspection could never supply.

For example, film editors believe that an impression of continuous action can be created across a cut by overlapping somewhere between two (Anderson, 1996) and four frames (Dmytryk, 1986) of the action. However, psychological investigations of time perception revealed that our judgements of duration depend on how attention is allocated during the estimated period (Zakay and Block, 1996) and will vary depending on whether our eyes remain still or saccade during the period (Yarrow et al, 2001). In my thesis (Smith, 2006) I used simplified film stimuli to investigate the role that visual attention played in estimation of temporal continuity across a cut and found that participants experienced an overlap of 58.44ms as continuous when an unexpected cut occurred during fixation and an omission of 43.63ms as continuous when they performed a saccade in response to the cut. As different cuts may result in different degrees of overt (i.e., eye movements) and covert attentional shifts these empirical findings both support editor intuitions that temporal continuity varies between cuts (Dmytryk, 1986) whilst also explaining the factors that are important in influencing time perception at a level of precision not possible through introspection.

Reflecting on our own experience of a film suffers from the fact that it relies on our own senses and cognitive abilities to identify, interpret and express what we experience. I may feel that my experience of a dialogue sequence from Antichrist (2010) differs radically from a similar sequence from Secrets & Lies (1996) but I would be unable to attribute these differences to different aspects of the two scenes without quantifying both the cinematic features and my responses to them. Without isolating individual features I cannot know their causal contribution to my experience. Was it the rapid camera movements in Antichrist, the temporally incongruous editing, the emotionally extreme dialogue or the combination of these features that made me feel so unsettled whilst watching the scene? If one is not interested in understanding the causal contributions of each cinematic decision to an audience member’s response then one may be content with informed introspection and not find empirical hypothesis testing the right method. I make no judgement about the validity of either approach as long as each researcher understands the limits of their approach.

Introspection utilises the imprecise measurement tool that is the human brain and is therefore subject to distortion, human bias and an inability to extrapolate the subjective experience of one person to another. Empirical hypothesis testing also has its limitations: research questions have to be clearly formulated so that hypotheses can be stated in a way that allows them to be statistically tested using appropriate observable and reliable measurements. A failure at any of these stages can invalidate the conclusions that can be drawn from the data. For example, an eye tracker may be poorly calibrated resulting in an inaccurate record of where somebody was looking or it could be used to test an ill formed hypothesis such as how a particular film sequence caused attentional synchrony without having another film sequence to compare the gaze data to. Each approach has its strength and weaknesses and no single approach should be considered “better” than any other, just as no film should be considered “better” than any other film.

Conclusion

The articles collected here constitute the first attempt to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives on the application of eye tracking to film studies. I fully commend the intention of this special issue and hope that it encourages future researchers to conduct further studies using these methods to investigate research questions and film experiences we have not even conceived of. However, given that the recent release of low-cost eye tracking peripherals such as the EyeTribe[vii] tracker and the Tobii EyeX[viii] has moved eye tracking from a niche and highly expensive research tool to an accessible option for researchers in a range of disciplines, I need to take this opportunity to issue a word of warning. As I have outlined in this article, eye tracking is like any other research tool in that it is only useful if used correctly, its limitations are respected, its data is interpreted through the appropriate application of statistics and conclusions are only drawn that are based on the data in combination with a sound theoretical base. Eye tracking is not the “saviour” of film studies , nor is science the only “valid” way to investigate somebody’s experience of a film. Hopefully, the articles in this special issue and the ideas I have put forward here suggest how eye tracking can function within an interdisciplinary approach to film analysis that furthers our appreciation of film in previously unfathomed ways.

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Rachael Bedford, Sean Redmond and Craig Batty for comments on earlier drafts of this article. Thank you to John Henderson, Parag Mital and Robin Hill for help in gathering and visualising the eye movement data used in the Figures presented here. Their work was part of the DIEM Leverhulme Trust funded project (https://thediemproject.wordpress.com/). The author, Tim Smith is funded by EPSRC (EP/K012428/1), Leverhulme Trust (PLP-2013-028) and BIAL Foundation grant (224/12).

 

References

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Batty, Craig, Claire Perkins and Jodi Sita. 2015. “How We Came To Eye Tracking Animation: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Researching the Moving Image”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Banks, Martin S., Jenny R. Read, Robert S. Allison and Simon J. Watt. 2012. “Stereoscopy and the human visual system.” SMPTE Mot. Imag. J., 121 (4), 24-43

Bradley, Margaret M., Laura Miccoli, Miguel A. Escrig and Peter J. Lang. 2008. “The pupil as a measure of emotional arousal and autonomic activation.” Psychophysiology, 45(4), 602-607.

Branigan, Edward R. 1984. Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film. Berlin: Mouton.

Brown, William. 2015. “There’s no I in Eye Tacking: How Useful is Eye Tracking to Film Studies?”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Buchan, Julie N., Martin Paré and Kevin G. Munhall. 2007. “Spatial statistics of gaze fixations during dynamic face processing.” Social Neuroscience, 2, 1–13.

Coutrot, Antoine, Nathalie Guyader, Gelu Ionesc and Alice Caplier. 2012. “Influence of Soundtrack on Eye Movements During Video Exploration”, Journal of Eye Movement Research 5, no. 4.2: 1-10.

Cutting, James. E., Jordan E. DeLong and Christine E. Nothelfer. 2010. “Attention and the evolution of Hollywood film.” Psychological Science, 21, 440-447.

Dwyer, Tessa. 2015. “From Subtitles to SMS: Eye Tracking, Texting and Sherlock”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Dyer, Adrian. G and Sarah Pink. 2015. “Movement, attention and movies: the possibilities and limitations of eye tracking?”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

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Henderson, John. M., 2003. “Human gaze control during real-world scene perception.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 498-504.

Hochberg, Julian and Virginia Brooks. 1978). “Film Cutting and Visual Momentum”. In John W. Senders, Dennis F. Fisher and Richard A. Monty (Eds.), Eye Movements and the Higher Psychological Functions (pp. 293-317). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Holmqvist, Kenneth, Marcus Nyström, Richard Andersson, Richard Dewhurst, Halszka Jarodzka and Joost van de Weijer. 2011. Eye Tracking: A comprehensive guide to methods and measures. Oxford, UK: OUP Press.

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Kruger, Jan Louis, Agnieszka Szarkowska and Izabela Krejtz. 2015. “Subtitles on the Moving Image: An Overview of Eye Tracking Studies”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

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Magliano, Joseph P. and Jeffrey M. Zacks. 2011. “The Impact of Continuity Editing in Narrative Film on Event Segmentation.” Cognitive Science, 35(8), 1-29.

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Rayner, Keith. 1998. “Eye movements in reading and information processing: 20 years of research”. Psychological Bulletin, 124(3), 372-422.

Rayner, Keith, Tim J. Smith, George Malcolm and John M. Henderson, J.M. 2009. “Eye movements and visual encoding during scene perception.” Psychological Science, 20, 6-10.

Raz, Gal, Yael Jacob, Tal Gonen, Yonatan Winetraub, Tamar Flash, Eyal Soreq and Talma Hendler. 2014. “Cry for her or cry with her: context-dependent dissociation of two modes of cinematic empathy reflected in network cohesion dynamics.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 9(1), 30-38.

Redmond, Sean, Jodi Sita and Kim Vincs. 2015. “Our Sherlockian Eyes: the Surveillance of Vision”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

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Notes

[ii] An alternative take on eye tracking data is to divorce the data itself from psychological interpretation. Instead of viewing a gaze point as an index of where a viewer’s overt attention is focussed and a record of the visual input most likely to be encoded into the viewer’s long-term experience of the media, researchers can instead take a qualitative, or even aesthetic approach to the data. The gaze point becomes a trace of some aspect of the viewer’s engagement with the film. The patterns of gaze, its movements across the screen and the coordination/disagreement between viewers can inform qualitative interpretation without recourse to visual cognition. Such an approach is evident in several of the articles in this special issue (including Redmond, Sita, and Vincs, this issue; Batty, Perkins, and Sita, this issue). This approach can be interesting and important for stimulating hypotheses about how such patterns of viewing have come about and may be a satisfying endpoint for some disciplinary approaches to film. However, if researchers are interested in testing these hypotheses further empirical manipulation of the factors that are believed to be important and statistical testing would be required. During such investigation current theories about what eye movements are and how they relate to cognition must also be respected.

[iii] Although, one promising area of research is the use of pupil diameter changes as an index of arousal (Bradley, Miccoli, Escrig and Lang, 2008).

[iv] This technique has been used for decades by producers of TV advertisements and by some “pop” serials such as Hollyoaks in the UK (Thanks for Craig Batty for this observation).

[v] This trend in increasing pace and visual complexity of film is confirmed by statistical analyses of film corpora over time (Cutting, DeLong and Nothelfer, 2010) and has resulted in a backlash and increasing interest in “slow cinema”.

[vi] Other authors in this special issue may argue that taking a critical approach to gaze heatmaps without recourse to psychology allows them to embed eye tracking within their existing theoretical framework (such as hermeneutics). However, I would warn that eye tracking data is simply a record of how a relatively arbitrary piece of machinery (the eye tracking hardware) and associated software decided to represent the centre of a viewer’s gaze. There are numerous parameters that can be tweaked to massively alter how such gaze traces and heatmaps appear. Without understanding the psychology and the physiology of the human eye a researcher cannot know how to set these parameters, how much to trust the equipment they are using, or the data it is recording and as a consequence may over attribute interpretation to a representation that is not reliable.

[vii] https://theeyetribe.com/ (accessed 13/12/14). The EyeTribe tracker is $99 and is as spatially and temporally accurate (up to 60Hz sampling rate) as some science-grade trackers.

[viii] http://www.tobii.com/eye-experience/ (accessed 13/12/14). The Tobii EyeX tracker is $139, samples at 30Hz and is as spatially accurate as the EyeTribe although the EyeX does not give you as much access to the raw gaze data (e.g., pupil size and binocular gaze coordinates) as the EyeTribe.

 

Bio

Dr Tim J. Smith is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London. He applies empirical Cognitive Psychology methods including eye tracking to questions of Film Cognition and has published extensively on the subject both in Psychology and Film journals.